Only in Hollywood.
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Oy, Frank Capra. Were back to chattering about the talking filibuster the idea that filibusters should be performed by senators giving marathon speeches on the Senate floor, just as James Stewart did in Capras 1939 movie classic,
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The latest revival is from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who on Sunday
said that he might consider a filibuster reform that would make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk.
Putting aside what it means about Manchins intentions and the future of the Democratic agenda for the remainder of the current Congress, its worth saying: This particular idea is a terrible one. It wont solve the problem it seeks to solve, and its bad idea on the merits, anyway.
The way that filibusters work in the Senate now is mostly invisible. The minority (typically the minority party, although it could be any group of senators who want to block a bill or an amendment) informs the majority that it will object to allowing a vote. The majority then either backs off and pulls the item off the Senator floor, or if it has the votes files for cloture to end debate and bring the matter to a vote and, if there are 60 votes, defeat the filibuster and eventually pass the item. No one gives extended speeches. A successful filibuster is usually invisible, with the majority never bringing the bill up for debate.
This makes people carried away by Jimmy Stewart sad. Or perhaps they mistakenly believe that the majority is letting the minority get away with something. But the truth is that the modern silent filibuster was
invented by ruling Democrats a half-century ago to help the majority, not the minority. Filibustering by notification allows the majority party to get other things done, instead of wasting scarce Senate time on something that doesnt have the votes for cloture.
Cloture, not attrition, is the way to defeat large minorities, because Senate rules and practices make holding the floor indefinitely relatively easy for a determined group of senators intent on a talking filibuster. When one senator gets tired, the next one can take over. And in a proper talking filibuster, the minority party would be the one holding the floor and delivering its message over and over. It would be a good way for the minority party to develop new stars and get plenty of TV coverage and the campaign donations that can come from it.
The Senate could change its procedures to make it impossible for the opposition to hold the floor for long. But doing so would just be a different way to abolish the filibuster, and thats exactly what the majority, so far, hasnt done. Theres no middle ground: Either it will be possible to sustain a talking filibuster forever in which case the minority will have an overwhelming incentive to do so in order to prove it can or it will be impossible, in which case the filibuster is at best a short delay, not a way to defeat a measure.
But suppose it was possible to calibrate the rules somehow so that it really was painful, but with enough grit, determination, and physical prowess a minority could keep it going. That seems like a terrible idea to me. Rather than being a method for intense minorities to have a strong say, it would just reward a feat of strength. Why would we want to do that?
The truth is simple: The Senate switched from talking filibusters to the current silent version because its better for the majority party. Bringing back talking filibusters to punish the minority gets it backward.
As far as the bigger picture, Manchin is correct if hes realizing the current situation, in which the minority party filibusters every bill so that a 60-vote supermajority is needed for all legislation, cries out for reform. I wish that there were at least 15 senators from both parties who wished to find a compromise that would preserve some influence for minorities, especially intense minorities, while also making it possible for simple majorities to generally get their way. Thats how the Senate used to work during most of its history; filibusters were reserved for only the highest priority of Senate minorities.
But for better or worse and there are good arguments either way, especially given that in practice the high priority Senate minorities protected during that history was white supremacy hardly any senators from either party are interested in finding a carefully calibrated compromise. Unless something changes, the filibuster will die before too long. The only questions are how long it will take for the right political context to come along, and whether it will disappear all at once or in a series of actions gradually eroding it until nothing remains.
1. Vivien Leung at the Monkey Cage on hate crimes and the consequences for
Asian-American political action.
2. David Litt on the demise of the filibuster
in the House.
3. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Ramesh Ponnuru on the
U.S. response to the pandemic. I have some disagreements, but agree that the U.S. economic response has been quite aggressive and generally underappreciated.
4. Megan McArdle on the
5. Greg Sargent on
Republican governance and what it offers Republican voters.
6. Jonathan Chait on
pro-democracy Republicans and conservatives.
7. Jon Ralston on the
end of the Harry Reid Democratic Party in Nevada.
8. And Steve Beynon on an awful-sounding plan for
continuing security on Capitol Hill.
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To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at [email protected]
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