Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Talk, Talk, Talk: Why the filibuster will soon end

In Uncategorized on February 18, 2010 at 7:42 am

For obvious reasons, there has been a lot of recent debate about whether we should end the tradition of unlimited debate in the Senate. One nice op-ed article can be found here. It is well known that the Senate often stalls legislation, acting as a check on what the more volatile house does. There are many reasons that the Senate acts as the saucer for the tea cup mass opinion that the house represents (Funny to think about the tea thing again. As it turns out, I think that the founding fathers drank tea differently in those days because Washington suggested to Jefferson that you pour your tea into the saucer to cool it. This reminds me of the new wine in old bottles line that often gets reversed today).  Now, it seems to me that there is reason to be suspect of 18th century notions of anti-democratic stopgaps, but let’s just grant that it is possible to have too much democracy for democracy’s own good. Even then, you already have a pretty good check on democracy in the Senate in that states have disproportionate representation (by by own analysis, I note that based on state population differences Republic Senators represented on 36% of the population prior to the election of Scott Brown in MA.  After Brown Republicans represent 37%) and the Senate does not turn over every two or even six years and represents large samples of people (thereby benefiting from the law of large numbers). By spreading out the points of reelection over three election cycles, you protect yourself against the passions of the moment and come closer to the long run or smoothed sentiment of the people. Fine.

Nevertheless. I am beginning to think that the filibuster is on its way out.  Now, if you know much about the filibuster, you know that this is really optimistic thinking. For example, there have been several attempts to do in the senate rule (I was just reading about one from 1962 in which Senator Javits played a big role), and the best that has come of it is reform of various kinds that has moved us from a 66% cloture vote to a 60% with a stealth filibuster that need never be mounted. There are interesting letters in the NY Times today about this, with one writer suggesting what many have suggested to me, which is to force the Mr. Smith goes to Washington moment.  This would make Senators accountable to the cameras and therefore to the people.  My prediction is that the filibuster will fall, even if it takes a Republican majority in both House and Senate to do the dirty work.  The reason for this is simply the increasing degree of hyperpartisanship in the leadership. Remember that we know from Morris Fiorina, Nolan McCarty and others that the country is not more polarized today than in the past, but that the leadership is. Now that the genie is out of the bottle and the filibuster is being consistently overused, Democrats will do unto Republicans what was done to them and vice-versa. You can see the rise in the use of the filibuster (which I have not checked for accuracy) here. The rule does make the country very difficult to govern and will probably have to go.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t think it is. There is plenty to read about this, with several scholarly references available on google scholar. Ruth Marcus had a well timed piece supporting endless debate and Paul Krugman opposing it. Here is my take, the filibuster has been used for many purposes, but it was developed with one big purpose in mind, the racial caste system. I don’t say this only because the filibuster was often used to prevent civil rights legislation after WWII, which it was, but rather because it was developed in the period leading up to the Civil War in which all American politics were consumed with the challenge of keeping a balance between slave and free states. The best figure to refer to on this is John C. Calhoun, who Richard Hofstadter called the Marx for the master class. When it became clear that the north would outgrow the south, Calhoun developed a theory of how the balance the South against the north in a way that would always allow it to check any northern initiatives and thereby block any attempt to free the African Americans who were the agricultural man’s natural class enemy along with the northern industrialist. All of the super majority moves from the Democratic nomination process to the filibuster draw on that need to check the power of the progressive majority. Note even that the name appears to derive from the Spanish word for freebooter as southerners looked for more slave land in Latin America.

The very concept of the institution is pernicious and when Republican majorities benefit from being able to run over the Democratic minority, they do so the old fashioned way, by winning elections. I have long been convinced and am affirmed in my belief now that the filibuster like racial apartheid has had its day. The question now is, who has the guts to skin that smoke wagon and see what happens?


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