Nel's New Day

November 30, 2012

Filibuster, Fiscal Whatever

Less than three weeks before the end of the year, the Republicans are swarming like a disturbed colony of yellow jackets since the Democrats threatened to revise the filibuster process. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) accused Democrats of throwing a bomb in the Senate and Majority Leader Harry Reid of breaking the rules. He forgot that it was the Republicans who decided seven years ago that Senate procedure could be changed through a simple majority on the first day of Congress every two years.

McConnell said, “It’s important to remember that the Senate hasn’t always functioned like it has the last two years, and the rules were exactly the same. We don’t have a rules problem, we have a behavior problem.” First, the Senate has behaved like this before the last two years. They’ve been like that for the last six years as the graph below shows. Second, McConnell doesn’t recognize that the “behavior problem” is on the side of the GOP.

With his back against the wall, McConnell wants to have a talk with Reid. They talked two years ago, and McConnell kept threatening and acting on the current filibuster rule. The GOP agreed to cooperate at the beginning of the 112th Congress and then immediately abandoned their promise.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has entered the fray, despite the fact that the filibuster concerns only the Senate. Yesterday he issued a statement in reference to the proposed changes to the filibuster rules:  “Any bill that reaches a Republican-led House based on Senate Democrats’ heavy-handed power play would be dead on arrival.” The threat is hollow: the House rejects anything that the Senate sends it anyway.

The statement also belies Boehner’s claim that he is “the most reasonable, responsible person” in Washington, as he recently identified himself. Last week, the Speaker said he will go after health care reform and hold the global economy hostage (again) until he gets what he wants but refuses to give any details on a debt-reduction proposal.

Boehner’s ravings are matched by these declarations that Scott Keyes found:

  • Worse than surrender in the Civil War: Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer:   “Robert E. Lee was offered easier terms at Appomattox and he lost the Civil War.”
  • Out of a fairytale: Writing in her Wall Street Journal column, Kimberley Strassel described the plan as “something out of Wonderland and Oz combined.”
  • “Nothing good can come of negotiating further”: RedState editor Erick Erickson told the GOP to pack up, go home, and take the country over the cliff.
  • “I’d walk out”: MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former GOP congressman, claimed that President Obama’s proposal was made just to “provoke” House Republicans and that the GOP should just walk out.
  • “Congress should dive headlong off fiscal cliff”: Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson advised the GOP to “dive headlong off fiscal cliff. Republicans don’t have a lot of good choices right now. They might as well try it.” [They can do that and then let the 113th Congress try to deny lowering taxes on the bottom 98 percent!]

As for the fate of filibuster reform in the Senate, nine Democrats out of the 55 progressives haven’t said they will vote for the proposed changes. Fifty votes will create a majority if Vice President Joe Biden votes in favor of the changes.

I don’t know whether Senate Democrats will change the rules, but I do know that the Founding Fathers didn’t intend for one person in the Senate to declare a filibuster while he stretches out on his couch far away from the chamber. The Constitution has nothing to do with a filibuster to “protect the minority,” as McConnell claims.

In the Continental Congress, Rule 10, derived from British parliamentary practice, provides only for “calling the question” so that a simple majority can end debate. Authors of the Constitution felt that they had already protected the minority by providing each state with the same number of senators. Because Rule 10 was used so infrequently, Aaron Burr proposed dropping it in 1806, and the Senate did just that with a simple majority vote.

Thirty-some years later, either in 1837 or 1841, a few senators, similar in perversity to today’s Republicans, decided to just talk forever, holding the Senate hostage to an ultimatum of the minority. Yet there were only 33 filibusters in the 57 years between 1840 and 1917.

World War I led to a 23-day filibuster against a bill to arm American merchant ships so that they could protect themselves after a German U-Boat sank the Lusitania. Those 23 days led to the first cloture rule, a partial restoration of the 1806 vote to drop Rule 10. No Senate rule has ever “authorized” the filibuster. Instead rules have attempted to reign in the minority’s abuse of Senate procedure.


This graph shows the number of “cloture” motions in every congressional session since 1919. Cloture is the procedure used to break a filibuster. Between 1919 and 1975, a successful cloture motion required two-thirds of the Senate. Today, it requires three-fifths, or, in cases where all 100 senators are present and voting, 60 votes.

The number of filibusters is not equivalent to the number of cloture because a large number of filibusters never receive a cloture vote either because it takes about 30 hours of floor time or because the party with fewer than 60 members won’t win. The important piece of the large number of cloture votes isn’t exactly how many but the indication that the filibuster is now a constant instead of a rarity.  Because of the filibuster, almost every action in the Senate needs 60 votes, ten votes over a simple majority.

Peter Carlson provides more information, albeit entertaining, in an article about the history of the filibuster. It may be funnier when the GOP stops trying to obstruct everything and starts working for the good of the United States.

Asides: Rachel Maddow has declared President Obama the Worst Socialist Ever.  As proof, she showed a chart from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, that post-tax corporate profits have almost tripled since George W. Bush’s crash of 2008.

corporate profits

After Boehner was ridiculed for the 19 white men he appointed to committee chairs for the 113th Congress, he found a woman to take care of the House—literally. As chair of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI), who hasn’t served on that committee for several years, will be in charge of the House’s administrative business from whether the cafeterias should use paper or Styrofoam plates to benefits for congressional workers and the operation of the Library of Congress. Miller wished to chair the Homeland Security Committee, but that job went to a man—Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX).

It only took 23 days, but the last race for the 113th Congress has been called. Incumbent Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) won after Republican David Rouzer conceded.  Democrats have net gain of eight House seats for the 113th Congress, totaling 201 Democrats out of the 435 representatives in the House. The Senate has 55 progressive members compared to the 45 GOP senators.


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