In response to my “Fortune Cookie” blog, Loyal Reader Larry asks the following series of very good questions:
Mr. Luna- I have some questions for you that I really don’t understand. I was a Political Science Major, but that was a long, long time ago. I’d like to understand why this 60 seat thing is so crucial, yet the Republicans never had this 60 seat thing for their 6 years, and yet they were able to pass and enact bill after Bill, and there was nothing the Democrats could do about it for 6 years, and no compromises were necessary. What am I not getting here? How come with more than 41 Senators, The Democrats were not able to prevent the Republican/Bush agenda. Did I also dream that when Republicans were in the Majority(recently) they threatened to abolish the Filibuster and now the Democrats are afraid of this group of 41, but were the Republicans ever afraid of the Democrats 40+ Senators. I continue to be baffled and bewildered. Are there 2 sets of rules? I don’t get it. Thanks
The simple, knee-jerk and emotionally-satisfying answer to all of your questions is: The Democrats are a bunch of Woosies! (NOT my first chose of epitaph but decorum dictates restraint.) The Democrats have not been able to advance a meaningful, game-altering agenda ever since LBJ lost the hearts and minds of the American people over Vietnam. If the Democrats jumped off the Empire State Building (legislatively speaking) they’d miss the ground. If the Democrats tried to take candy from a baby, the baby’d beat them up. If the Democrats fell into an empty swimming pool they’d drown.
That being said, as in all things (except, perhaps, responding to the presence of a very large and very hungry carnivore by screaming like a little girl and running like hell) the situation is more complicated than a simple, knee-jerk and emotionally driven response.
The United States Senate was, by design, created to be a collegial institution. The principle of majority rules never has applied to this august body. Senatorial rules of debate and procedure adopted since the dawn of the Republic allow for a minority—even of one—to slow down or even block action. To get anything done on anything controversial a supermajority is historically called for. The Senate was designed this way to prevent a majority of the states from simply forcing their will on a minority of states. The House is all about majority rules. The Senate is all about consensus. The filibuster—the ability of a minority of senators to take the Senate floor and essentially hold it hostage until some matter they object to is removed from consideration—is one of those devices.
Now, today’s filibuster is not your daddy’s filibuster. Once upon a time, for a filibuster to work, a senator or group of senators had to physically stand in the hall of the Senate, on their feet, talking without stop. As long as they held the floor no other senator could speak or make a motion to move a bill forward: there could be no vote. The filibuster senator(s) would demand that a quorum of senators (fifty percent) be present to witness their endeavor, guaranteeing that, as long as they held the floor, no-one could get pretty much anything done in the Senate. These are the filibusters of the days of Mister Smith Goes To Washington. As we’ll see below, those simple days are long gone.
Now there are physical limits to how long one senator can stand up and talk. The record for a filibuster belongs to Strom “Don’t Want to Give Equal Rights to Blacks But Don’t Mind Fathering a Child With One Out Of Wedlock” Thurmond, who ran on for over twenty-four hours to block the Voting Rights Act. But you get two or more senators going at it in a tag team and a filibuster can last for ever. To keep the Senate from being forever hijacked (the term filibuster comes from an amalgamated Franco-Dutch-Spanish phrase that, essentially, means “pirate”—filibustering is, therefore, in a sense, an act of legislative terrorism) by a handful of malcontents, the body adopted the rule of “Cloture.” Cloture is a vote of senators to end debate—and therefore a filibuster—by invoking the Thirty Hour Rule. If passed, a move for Cloture means that, after just an additional THIRTY HOURS of debate, the matter on the floor must be brought to a vote. The number of senators required to pass cloture originally was two-thirds; that threshold was dropped to sixty percent (sixty votes) in the 1970s, and remains so today.
The number of filibusters in the Senate have sky-rocketed since the early 1990s. You can thank Bob “Easy, Boy” Dole for that one. Back in 1993 the Democrats were giddy with power, controlling majorities in both the House and Senate and with their man Bill in the White House. Having been elected to deal with the 1991-1992 recession on the mantra “It’s The Economy, Stupid”, Clinton sent a stimulus bill to Congress in early 1993. Republicans in the House condemned it as more Democratic tax and spend politics. With a large majority in the House, however, the Democrats were able to ride roughshod over the GOP, passing the bill without allowing the Republicans much in the way of debate or amendment. Dole, the Republican Senate minority leader, decided to teach the Democrats a lesson in congeniality. Dole dug out a Senate Rule that hadn’t seen the light of day since the 19th century. (Say what you will about Dole the Presidential Candidate—he was a Whiz bang Senatorially leader, the likes of which neither party has seen since he left his real home for the Quixotic ’96 campaign.) The rule essentially allows you to “phone-in” a filibuster. If your side in the Senate has a secure 41 votes to block a motion of cloture, your side can simply announce it will filibuster a bill if it is brought to the floor. The other side, knowing they cannot bring the bill to a vote and facing the possibility of a real, stay up all night in the Senate filibuster, is now helpless. The bill dies without sixty votes.
When Dole did this to the Democrats they responded with anger, frothing at the mouth and sputtering before the press about how undemocratic and unfair it was. (Clinton’s stimulus plan died.) Bob Dole responded by blowing them a raspberry. Then Republicans took over the Senate in 1994 and, for the next six years, Democrats started to use Dr. Dole’s Pain Free Magic Filibuster Elixir, guaranteed to kill bills before they kill you. Republicans responded with anger, frothing at the mouth and sputtering before the press about how undemocratic and unfair it was. Democrats responded by blowing them a raspberry. Then Democrats took control of the Senate in 2001 and Republicans Doled them with filibusters. Democrats sputtered, Republicans raspberried. When Republicans took back the Senate in 2002, though, things turned even uglier. Democrats began using the Dole filibuster to block several of George W. Bush’s more controversial (at least in their minds) appellate court nominations. Republicans sputtered and frothed—and threatened to change the rules on judicial nominations to take a vote of cloture down to a simple majority, effectively killing the use of the filibuster. Republican leaders at first called this the “nuclear option” as in going to total war with the Democrats, changing the incendiary phrase to the “Constitutional Option” (which, like many GOP handles, was both misleading and false: there is nothing in the Constitution that precludes the use of the filibuster in the Senate.) Then John McCain stepped into the breach (that was back in the pre-2008 days when McCain was still a moderate maverick and not the cranky old reactionary conservative he morphed into). McCain reminded his fellow party members that, while they were currently in the majority one day they might not be so lucky and, when that day came, they might really like to be able to use a filibuster or seventy-three to block the judicial nominations—and other actions—of some future liberal Democratic President. Say, a charismatic black politicians from, or, I dunno, Chicago? McCain led the Group of 14 senators who pushed through a compromise: the Democrats would practice more restraint in blocking Bush judicial nominations, the filibuster would remain untouched. Reactionary-right Republicans continue to this day to condemn cranky conservative McCain for being a mooshy RINO for betraying his party with his Gang of 14, even though that is the reason why, five years later, a minority of forty-one Republicans in the Senate can now derail healthcare—and the rest of the Obama agenda.
Of course, that is also not the whole story, either.
For a party to successfully use the Dole filibuster the party must have a firm, dependable forty-one votes. That means, if the party is in the Senate minority, pretty much every member has to vote in lock-step. For the Republicans that means ALL forty-one senators have to toe the party line to avoid cloture—which they DO! The Republican party of today is also not your daddy’s party. The Grand Old Party has become the Old Southern Party consisting lots of politicians who, in years past, would have been Democrats simply because they would never have belonged to the party of Lincoln. But the GOP is no longer the party of Lincoln—it is the party of Reagan with all the anti-liberal, anti-Washington rhetoric, which are code words for all anti-civil rights movement and anti affirmative action rhetoric–that implies. Over the last twenty years the Republican Party has systematically purged moderate and liberal Republicans from their Congressional ranks such that, today, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina is being called too liberal. The only remain Republican senatorial moderates—read Olympia Snow and Susan Collins—understand that, unless they break to the right they’ll be busted out of politics altogether by conservative primary challengers. So the Republican party has become one conservative beast with many mouths and limbs, moving in ideological lockstep.
Bully for them.
The Democrats, however, continue to live up to Will Rogers’ famous line, “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” The reality is, while the Democrats, by title, controlled sixty votes in the Senate until this Tuesday, the Democratic senators are ideologically divided between traditional liberals like California’s Feinstein and Boxer, Blue Dog “moderates” (read fiscal and, mostly, social conservatives) like Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and DINOs like former Democrat Joe “Teach You All For Giving Me the VEEP Slot On A Losing Ticket” Lieberman. This motley crew couldn’t find common ground on what condiments to put on a hotdog, let alone keep enough party discipline to deliver an assured sixty votes. That’s why, even though Democrats had more than forty votes in the Senate throughout the Bush years, they couldn’t block much beyond the most controversial Bush judicial appointments and the Republicans could get much of their domestic—and almost all of their foreign policy—agendas adopted.
The real danger to the Republic, however, is not the filibuster or even the failure of healthcare reform. The real danger is that, over the next several election cycles, Democrats follow in the footsteps of their Republican Brethren and begin to really work at ideologically purifying their ranks. A number of the more conservative Democrats in purple states may start to think about doing a full Lieberman (which Lieberman, with his trademark jello-like resolve, hasn’t mustered the courage to finally do, yet) and bolt to the GOP. Other moderate-conservatives might find themselves targeted by increasingly liberal opponents in their primaries. The result: a US Senate divided between two completely antagonistic ideological blocks which tolerate no compromise and forge no consensus. Under these circumstances the Senate simply cannot function: nothing can get done. Which ever party is in the minority, enjoying more than forty votes, will simply obstruct the other party until they get propelled into the majority by an angry public—only to not get anything done when the minority blocks them.
The United States may well be heading into its Fourth Republic Phase. Back in the 1950s the French government (the Fourth Republic) foundered when partisan division rendered the parliament impotent to deal with major problems like the Algerian problem. The political paralysis and rising social crisis almost resulted in a military coup, averted only by the extra-constitutional creation of a new Fifth Republic by the godlike Charles de Gaulle. The French had to completely redesign their government (producing the “French” or “Mixed” model, in which the people elect both a President who appoints a Prime Minister to run the government, and a Parliament which approves or fires the Prime Minister and passes laws).
I don’t see Americans, with their almost Japanese reverence of their political ancestors, willing to consider a major revamp of our system of government to deal with such paralysis any time soon. And I sure as heck don’t see a de Gaulle out there anywhere on the political landscape. (Colin Powell might have had a chance at the role if he hadn’t squandered his credibility defending nonexistent WMDs for a President who rewarded him by letting his administration rivals stab him in the back and heave his political corpse off the second term truck.)
So that, dear Larry, is why the Democrats couldn’t stop the Republicans, why the Republicans can stop the Democrats and why both parties are poised to stop the political heart of the American Republic.
January 21, 2010 at 4:58 pm
Thanks for the excellent, informative(and humorous) posted response to my questions. I haven’t thought about many of the specific senate rules etc for a long time. I also have used phrases such as “woosies” to describe the Democrats seemingly astonishing ineptitude over the years.(except my word is usually “Lame”)
But, when I think about This seriously, I find myself thinking the whole thing still does not make sense. They can’t simply be as inept as they seem. I’ve grown tired of Defending(or trying to) The democrats as a Party, and I feel with 60 or 59 or 51 seats, they are out of excuses. They could not possibly not have realized that they would get no cooperation from Republicans, be called every name in the Book, Have their leader be called Marxist, Socialist, Fascist and other contradictory terms(regardless of something known as the facts) and regardless of what he actually did.
And yet once again, they were not ready for it. How is this possible?
What I now have come to believe, is that both The Republican and Democratic parties are in a marriage with Big Business. The difference is that one has a Harmonious, and one has an occasionally rocky marriage with Business.
But they both have Marriages. And to me this is the essence of the Democrats problem, who I have come to believe simply do not have their heart in their agenda(if they have one) I don’t think they are committed to represent the constituents they supposedly represent, because they too are married to Kaiser, Aetna, and Boeing, but unlike the Republicans they can’t really admit that. (ok, the Republicans don’t admit it either, but most know it)
My feeling is for some reason the Dem Pols don’t seem to have the heart (or stomach) for the very game they are playing, and if they really don’t I wish they would just get into another Racket!
January 21, 2010 at 10:42 pm
Thanks. My only disagreement is that I see a renewed emphasis on the primary process as having positive potential. The Dems have taken it for granted, since Will Roger’s time at least, that party discipline wasn’t for them. Most democratic voters are now sick of that. I know I am. For better or worse, it takes a team to move the ball.
Ideology is not the issue — if Nelson, Lincoln, et al want to dither and ignore the team captain and generally hog the ball, they will cost us the game. And they have. I think we’re much too quick to ascribe to the ‘activist base’ a thirst for ideological purity. More than anything, they want reps who can play smart enough to advance a merely adequate agenda. Too many establishment Dems simply aren’t up to speed, and worse, refuse to admit it. Primaries can help. So let’s not get drawn in to the narrative that all primary challenges are about purity. (At least not on the Dem side…)
January 22, 2010 at 11:35 am
I’d like to add a postscript to my comments here yesterday.
I wrote those comments before reading of the Supreme Court’s latest decision on upending corporate campaign restrictions on since the days of TR. In terms of both parties really having to answer to their Corporate benefactors, it will be many times more true now than ever-and there will really be no place for a Guy Like me to go Now.
How the Republicans have always been able to attack the Democrats and claim they are the ones who relate to the little guy, and also have they have been able to attack “Judicial activism’ “legislating from the bench” etc, but Democrats had no answer and never attacked the Republicans on these things will forever remain a mystery to me, as will why they did nothing about Diebold etc etc, etc
January 22, 2010 at 4:26 pm
Reader Larry: Republicans have sold their souls to the great god Mammon but are proud of it, thinking they’re doing God’s work. (The other God. The One who occasionally spoke to Charlton Heston.) Talk about golden idols. The Democrats have sold their souls to the same god but feel guilty about it which is why their marriage to the beast of business (and by that I mean, of course:
which, as ever school child knows stands for:
Big Big Smash Every Small Business Out Of Existence And Monopolize Markets And Buy Off Or Even Better Smash All Opposition Especially Workers And The Middle Class Especially In Red States Where Average People Have Been Dumb Enough To Think That If One Percent Of The Population Gets Rich Enough Somehow God Will Smile On Them Too and Make Them Rich Which Only Results In The Monopolists Undercutting Everything Good Adam Smith Wrote About Free Markets By Fostering Non-Competitive Fixed Markets That Are Turning America Into A Postmodern Feudal System Where A Handful of Corporate And Financial Elite Reap The Lions Share of the Rewards From The Toil Of Three Hundred Million People. )
turns rocky from time to time. The elected Democrats just don’t have their hearts into selling their souls as much as their evangelical Republican brethren.
And Augmented Ballot, I must disagree. Extremism in defense of liberty is still extremism, as is extremism in pursuit of ideological values. Look at how extreme the attacks on Obama from the left are becoming. He’s sold out, compromised away his values, yadda yadda yadda. The same song is being sung by the choir of the left as the choir of the right. What Democrats haven’t figured out was the 2006 & 2008 might well have been aberrations and, far from the recession moving the ball more toward center field from its place on the ideological rights twenty yard line, we might be about to see things lurch right towards the right’s Hallelujah End Zone. In other words, we might be about to see the hardest American break to the right since the Alien and Seditions Act. This recession is producing feelings of relative deprivation for the American middle class—and independents—which historically makes bourgeois populations head to the reactionary, save my 401k right. More on that thought in next week’s blog. Meanwhile, unless Obama can recapture the middle class vote that hesitantly broke his way in ’08, America’s heading towards the Morning Again In America II hosted by Fox sensation Sarah P. (What a brilliant marketing ploy by Fox: take over a political party to provide content to its network. Kinda the Disney-ABC deal in reverese.)
And yes, Larry, with the incredibly bold and so-explicit no-one will even call it what it is conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court (a court breaking so far to the right that its now reversing the conservative Rehnquist court for being to liberal) money now will fully own American politics, rather than just leasing the best parts as in years past. Sarah Palin is being set up to be the first true and fully Corporate Media candidate.
And the Democrats? They just keep saying, “Thank you sir. May I have another.”
Where’s Senator Blutarsky when you need him?
January 22, 2010 at 9:07 pm
Carl, my comment must not have been clear so let me rephrase. There’s a conventional narrative out there that assumes that primaries, and primary challenges especially (and grassroots activists generally), are driven by ideology alone. I don’t think that’s true. I find countless reasons to be dissatisfied with Democratic “woosies” (your word) that have nothing to do with ideology, and I gather you do too.
Don’t we want politically adept representatives, liberal, centrist, or otherwise? How will we get those if not by challenging the most craven/inept?
Jim Webb (for better or worse) and Brian Schweitzer come to mind as moderate Dems first championed by grassroots primary activists, if examples are needed. It’s no secret that self-righteous extremism and narrow litmus tests are only that. (And I’d point out that centrists can be attached to self-righteousness and purity tests of their own.)
Back to my point. If we want to improve the Democratic party, if we don’t see whusiness and self-sabotage as inevitable, then primaries are a useful and wholly appropriate avenue for change. I don’t think they deserve the caricature they receive.
January 28, 2010 at 1:56 am
You know, for all that he did, I think this is the first time I’ve seen De Gaulle described as “godlike”.
February 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm
Arilou: Then you never heard DeGaulle speak. He would have been the first (and, if necessary, the last) to tell you he was godlike. The ego in egomaniacal knows no bonds. Bottom line, the General was THE god figure of 20th century French politics.
Augmented: You speak from the personal and extrapolate to the universal, from the ought to the is. I agree with you that many grassroots activists are not driven by ideological imperatives and that primaries are an excellent way to winnow out good from bad candidates. I also believe that most of the most active and effective activists come from the tails of the ideological distribution. Survey research supports this claim. Voter turnout for primaries is always more narrowly drawn from the polar ends of the political spectrum than in general elections. The upshot of this has been, good intentions of grassroots activists not withstanding, a resulting polarization of representation when representatives are chosen from ideologically gerrymandered districts. Change the gerrymandering (as California is doing) and you just might return primaries to the role you envision for them.