Why the Filibuster Hurts U.S. Democracy: Most People Don’t Know Whom They’re Voting For

James Fallows has been doing yeoman’s work in his criticism of the U.S. Senate filibuster. For those who don’t know what the filibuster is, it’s a way for the minority party to tank legislation through the use of the Senate cloture rule. Well, that explains everything, Mad Biologist! OK, in the Senate, legislation is passed by a majority rule vote (51 out of 100 senators), but for legislation to be brought to the floor for a vote (cloture), you need sixty votes. If you can prevent the cloture vote (filibustering), then the legislation can’t be voted upon. This results in a de facto supermajority of sixty votes for legislation to pass.

Fallows has an excellent summary of the Republican abuse of the filibuster, but there’s one issue he doesn’t discuss: how the filibuster makes it difficult for voters to know what they’re getting. It’s not simply an issue of discourse, although as Fallows notes, use of the filibuster is so institutionalized, bills that are filibustered are referred to as “failed” as opposed to “blocked by minority.” That’s bad enough.

The problem is that most people don’t who they’re voting for due to the filibuster. Let’s harken back to 2008, when the Democratic caucus actually had sixty votes. Suppose you voted for a Democrat who wanted significant healthcare reform, either expansion of voluntary Medicare to all or even a single payer proposal. The problem is, if Republicans decide it’s in their bests political (and policy) interest to oppose any healthcare reform, then every Democrat has to vote for cloture.

This is where things go off the rails. Regardless of political system, every party has a few individuals who are out of the mainstream of their party. It didn’t matter if 53 – 54 Democrats wanted a better healthcare bill–if a handful of backbencher Democrats oppose the legislation, they have enormous power over the remaining members of their party. In other words, vote for independent and self-described Socialist Bernie Sanders in Vermont and you wind up kowtowing to former healthcare executive and nominal Democrat (and allaround piece of shit) Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

This is confusing for voters, since it doesn’t matter what the majority of the party stands for. A few conservative Democrats are effectively running the Senate and deciding which legislation lives or dies. This completely kills the notion of party identification, which is what many voters base their decisions: Democrats stand for X, Y, and Z, so I’ll vote for them. Then a handful of senators squash those initiatives and frustration ensues because voters don’t know what else they’re supposed to do (send citizens militias to forcibly occupy Nebraska?).

And this happens on a variety of issues: even before the Democrats dropped below sixty seats, on nearly every issue, a couple Democrats could be found to break ranks? Need to tank cleaner energy policy? Find a couple of Democrats from ‘polluter states’ (e.g., Jon Tester of Montana). Scuttle Wall Street regulation? Chuck Schumer of New York is your guy.

Until we get rid of the filibuster, voters on both sides of the aisle will have no idea what they’re supporting.

That’s not a good thing in a democracy.

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4 Responses to Why the Filibuster Hurts U.S. Democracy: Most People Don’t Know Whom They’re Voting For

  1. Min says:

    And strict party line voting is a good thing?

    • Not always. But parties do have substantive disagreements on key issues, and party line voting will occur. It also serves as a useful rule of thumb for most people who have better things to do than follow politics obsessively.

  2. Kele says:

    Glenn Greenwald called this “Villain Rotation:”
    “The primary tactic in this game is Villain Rotation. They always have a handful of Democratic Senators announce that they will be the ones to deviate this time from the ostensible party position and impede success, but the designated Villain constantly shifts, so the Party itself can claim it supports these measures while an always-changing handful of their members invariably prevent it.”


  3. I’m not absolutely sure “straight party ticket” is great for democracy either – it isn’t terribly participatory and encourages voting on tribalism rather than actual views and/or accomplishments (negative or positive).

    That said, filibusters suck and should be the exception not the rule. I think that could be solved to require filibusters to once again require the congressmen to actually “fillibuster” (that is, stand there and keep talking). Because there is no pain, it is just too easy to do. Other remedies should probably also be made, but I’d start with that.

    Never going to happen short of a second revolution it seems though.

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