Unintended Consequences: The minority has become the majority, or something like that

Many columnists, bloggers and podcastarians (?) have been floating this notion that the filibuster is out-dated and causing more problems than it’s worth.  I haven’t seen any data, which would tell us how often the Democrats used the filibuster during the Bush years or if it’s being threatened more frequently by the GOP minority now.  However, I don’t remember hearing this much about Senate rules when Bush was in office.  I find that curious.

Is it a recent phenomenon that the minority party has the upper hand in terms of Senate power because they are willing to utilize the filibuster?  If yes, I think that this rule is having the unintended consequence of giving the party the American people voted out of majority, more power than the party with 59 votes.  If it’s not a recent shift, I think that means the Left-thinking politicos and writers are bitter that the rules are coming back to obscure Obama’s agenda.  My gut reaction is that it is the former rather than the latter, but I’m honestly not sure.

There’s also an element of political culture at play.  There is a big difference between the general personalities of the two parties.  I am hesitant to make generalization across both parties because they often don’t apply to all the members.  On the other hand, the two parties measure success differently and seem to have varying management styles and strategies when in the majority or minority.  It was Paul Krugman this week that reminisced back to the mid-1990s when Gingrich and the Republicans were so tough in “playing politics” that they forced a government shutdown.

His implication (and what I’d like to see as an interested political observer and frequent fan of President Obama’s) is that Senate Democrats and President Obama “get tough.”  Force the Republicans into a corner, play hardball and use the weight of a 59-seat majority as effectively as possible, bipartisanship be damned.  I don’t think this is correct move for the political tenor and well being of politics in this country. And as a result, I couldn’t recommend it.  However, from a strategy perspective, it makes sense.

The American people love confidence, strength and courage.  It would certainly take all 3 traits to start forcing the Republicans, many Democrats and all of “Washington” on its heels.  First you’ve got to be certain of your goals and message.  After that, imagining myself as a political strategist, my advice would be to go on the offensive.  As they said in The West Wing (one of many Aaron Sorkin masterpieces), “Let Bartlett, Be Bartlett.”  Obama has a personal and rhetorical gift and not incidentally, the highest office in the land.

So, before we go around trying to change Senate rules to fit the current landscape, it might be worthwhile to try a different strategy first.  As a political moderate, I think the best option always involves bringing together different perspectives, parties and public opinion in an effort to find the best middle ground for the American people writ large.  As a voter with a modicum of common sense, I recognize that that is not always possible, and sometimes when the opposition party is getting too confident in their minority, the President must either get tough or give up.

I’m also basing this theory on the premise that more legislating is good.  A friend recently told me that one of the best parts of our two-party system is that it brings balance and stability to legislation.  Nothing too progressive or extreme is allowed to stand because the other party has tools to block and limit the scope of its impact.  While I see the point, this is at odds with problem solving.  We cannot address serious issues by making miniscule and often imperceptible changes to existing law.  I would much rather see politicians imagining solutions to society’s problems and then trying to figure out how to sell them to Congress and ultimately the American people.

To do that, changing the rules like filibustering in the Senate may one day be necessary to fix legislative stalemate, but that should be viewed as a serious and potentially risky option.  Before we reach that point, I think more can be done.

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2 responses to “Unintended Consequences: The minority has become the majority, or something like that

  1. Just the other night (Tuesday?) I heard a piece on NPR, an interview with a former Senator (of course I’ve forgotten his name) who explained that filibusters were quite rare during periods of Republican majority in Congress. He gave some numbers to back this up, so it seems there is some information out there… Sorry for how vague this was! Your post just brought that story to mind. Nice post

  2. Under President Bush the Democrats threatened the use of a filibuster for judicial appointees much the same way that Republicans are threatening the use of the filibuster now. Some Republicans, in 2005, called for the elimination of the filibuster. 7 Democrats and 7 Republicans joined together and formed what was called the gang of 14. The 7 Dems said that they would not filibuster judicial appointees unless it was an extreme circumstance and the 7 Repubs said that they would not support a ban of the filibuster.

    An actual filibuster is rarely ever used but the threat has been used frequently by the minority party as a check and balance. I think that when the threat stops either party from implementing their policy the stomp and throw a hissy fit because they aren’t getting their way but it is a necesarry tool. It forces compromise not only on policy but what one side considers a crisis the other may not.

    I’ve mentioned before my disdain for Washington and the way that politicians treat Capital Hill like a game that their side must win. That’s why the voters need to demand that their congressmen work together or vote for someone who will.

    Rarely will both sides agree on a problem or solution but if they can see a way to solve a problem that works for both sides or a solution that is mutual beneficial then the people will be well served.

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