Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Rachel Maddow & Ezra Klein "be careful what you wish for" Filibuster Edition

Rachel Maddow has been waxing eloquent of late about what she considers "abuse" of the filibuster rule in the Senate by Republicans "obstructing" the legislative process. She ignores the simple fact that there is a 60 vote filibuster proof Democratic majority in the Senate, making it mathematically impossible for the Republicans to maintain a filibuster on anything. At worst, they can be accused of enabling Democratic party obstruction on any given bill. That said, she and Ezra Klein make some interesting points in Monday's show about the history and evolution of the filibuster rule in the Senate.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

As any good partisan, Rachel complains loud and long about the GOP "abuse" of the filibuster, while glossing over the Democratic "abuse" of the same procedural tool. To be fair, she does make a perfunctory mention of the Democrats use of the filibuster to block George W Bush judicial nominations. The Republicans had a smaller majority in the Senate at the time, so the Democrats then (unlike Republicans now) actually could filibuster anything.

That 2005 episode famously prompted a Republican leadership threat invoking the "nuclear option" to change the Senate rules and limit the use of filibusters. The showdown was averted by the bipartisan "Gang of Fourteen" led by John McCain, effectively saving the filibuster and earning him the enmity and derision of the right. Those same partisans on the right should be on their knees right now thanking John McCain for allowing Republicans to retain what little relevance they have in the Senate today. At least they can attempt to cobble together bipartisan filibuster efforts (which is the only kind that can succeed in this particular Senate). Run of the mill partisan hypocrisy aside, it was this exchange that caught my attention:
MADDOW: "Well, this has been a subject of frustration to people in both parties at different times and at different, more or less, convenient intervals... How hard is it to get rid of the filibuster? I feel like I‘ve read a lot of different analysis about how many votes it would take and what process you‘d need to kill it if you wanted to.

"People disagree on this... What you‘d basically, I think, need to have is Congress will need to remember that it is supposed to be an independent branch of government that is supposed to act on major, going concerns. And so, you‘d have the two parties get together and decide, “We don‘t want it to be the case that when we‘re in the majority, we can‘t do any of the things we promised the American people we‘d do.”And so, six years from today, when we don‘t know who will be in power the filibuster phases out. But for that to happen, you need Congress to begin acting like a branch of government and not just an attachment or an accessory of the president—which hasn‘t been the case for sometime now."
Somebody once said something about the consequences of failing to learn the lessons of history. You might think Ezra and Rachel would learn something from the Republicans who were once so exercised by Senate filibusters, and who are now - less so. But, let's go with Ezra's six year proposition. Contrary to his assertion, we can make an educated guess at what the Senate will look like six years hence.

I'm already on the record about the likely composition of the Senate over the next two election cycles. On Tuesday, Chris Matthews took a closer look at the "Top 5 Endangered Senators" in 2010 cycle:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Interestingly, the top 5 endangered Senators are all Democrats. This clip is worth watching just to see Matthew's ham-handed shilling for all five, including the pithy observation that only stupid voters in Connecticut would try to unseat incumbent Chris Dodd. More to the point, the 2010 Senate election will be played out on a structurally even playing field, with each party defending an equal number of seats. Losing five seats would have to be considered a rout and unlikely under those circumstance, but nevertheless, Ron Brownstein and Charlie Cook invoke that very possibility (at the 6:20 mark).:
Chris Mathews: "Who is the most vulnerable Democrat?"

Ron Brownstein: "I would say Dodd. One thing to keep in mind though Chris... In big years, in wave years, in 1980, 1986, 1994, 2002, 2006 all the close Senate races went the same way. In many ways, these guys are not entirely the captain of their fate...

Chris Matthews: "Can a Republican lose this year coming up? Can a Republican incumbent lose any race anywhere next year?

Charlie Cook: "I would not be surprised to see no Republican incumbent House or Senate lose."
Even if there was a five seat shift, the Democrats would retain a majority with Joe Biden breaking the partisan tie. I am sticking with my forecast of a net gain of 3 seats for Republicans. Regardless whether it is 3 or 5 in 2010, it gets more interesting in 2012, when the field tilts dramatically in favor of Republicans. Of the 33 seats contested, the Democrats will be defending 24 seats, and the Republicans only 9. Even if they win 2 seats in 2010, it is virtually a fait accompli that the GOP will retake the Senate majority in 2012. In 2014, 21 of the 33 seats are defended by Democrats and 12 defended by Republicans. Again - advantage GOP.

Which brings us back to Ezra Klein's plan for phasing out the filibuster. "And so, six years from today, when we don‘t know who will be in power the filibuster phases out...". Uh Huh. Should Klein's plan actually find support on the Senate floor, it raises the specter of a simple majority of Republicans in 2015 undoing the Health Care plan that required a 60 vote Democratic plurality in 2009. Definitely in the "be careful what you wish for" category.

OTOH, should the Democrats sponsor such a measure in the Senate, they might find some surprising bi-partisan support from Republicans with a somewhat longer view.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

No comments: