Various topics for today have been running through my head all week, but as often happens, a last-minute encounter with the current New York Review of Books changed my mind. It contains a remarkable review by Michael Tomasky of two books on the history of the Senate in general and filibustering in particular, and although some of it could have been more clearly written, Tomasky's own explanation of exactly how the filibuster works today was an eye-opener for me, and will be one for most readers as well, I am sure. I knew things were bad, but I didn't quite realize how bad.
I am old enough to remember the great filibusters of the 1950s and early 1960s against civil rights legislation. The first, a solo effort by Strom Thurmond in 1957 against a bill so watered down that Lyndon Johnson had persuaded most southern Democrats to let it pass, produced the record--24 hours--for a single Senate speech. The next two, in 1960 and 1964, were actually defeated, the last one very dramatically. I was also aware of filibusters against anti-lynching laws, which never passed, going back to the 1920s and 1930s at least. But in all those cases, filibusters and the cloture votes that sought to end them were responses to legislation that had come to the Senate floor. One reason we are in such trouble today, it seems, is that that is not how it works any more.
The key to the process, it seems, is the problem of actually bringing almost any measure, from the confirmation of a presidential appointee to the financial reform bill, to the Senate floor in the first place. For centuries this was customarily done by unanimous consent requests, made, presumably, by the majority leader, whose task it was to set the Senate calendar. Now, however, Republicans routinely refuse their consent--and according to Tomasky, no procedure exists to bring matters before the floor by a simple majority vote. Instead, he claims, the only way to get something on the floor in the absence of unanimous consent is to file what amounts to a pre-emptive cloture motion (that's my word, not his.) This process takes a few days, and the motion can be debated several times, as has happened repeatedly during the last two years. The point is that unlike in 1964, when cloture eventually defeated a filibuster and brought the Civil Rights Act to a vote after months of debate, now the cloture votes are taken to begin debate, presumably with the proviso that it will be limited. One result of all this, clearly, is to remove actual debate--that is, genuine discussion of the measure at hand in public, with an eye to improvement, amendment, and marshaling public support--from the process entirely. All the necessary deals had to be struck behind closed doors in the Senate before the Health Care Bill even came before the body at all, since Harry Reed needed his 60 votes behind him to get the discussion started.
The use of this procedure, data makes clear, has been a central part of Republican strategy now for almost twenty years, if not more. The modern Republican Party has a problem: its policies, particularly its economic policies, do not help the average voter. Clever mobilization, the use of social, racial and religious resentments, and tough-talking foreign policies have helped overcome this handicap since Reagan, but nonetheless, inevitably, severe recessions happen at the wrong time (most notably in 1991-2 and in 2007-8) and Democrats win majorities in Congress and/or the White House. The Republican problem, then, is to prevent the Democrats from actually doing anything to help the American people very much, while at the same time launching personal and extreme political attacks upon any Democratic President. The filibuster has been absolutely critical in achieving the first objective. Data provided by Sarah A. Binder and Steven Smith in one of the books under review tells the story. The Democratic Senate leadership in 1993-4 had to file 80 motions for cloture, a new record for a single Congress by a large majority. This helped block the Clinton health care plan, which never came to a vote, and the Republicans took over the Senate and the House in the fall of 1994 and held them both for most of the next 12 years. From 2003 until 2007 the Republicans controlled the Senate and the White House, and they successfully put through a great deal of their agenda, filing 130 cloture motions during that entire period, or about 32 every year. But in the last four years--since the Democrats regained the Senate--the Democratic leadership has had to file almost exactly twice as many, 256. Unfortunately, Tomasky doesn't tell us how many of the 256 have been filed since Obama became President, but it seems very likely that it is well over half.
Now there are a number of reasons why the Obama Administration has been unable to do more to help Americans hurt by the depression into which we have fallen. Some of it is their own fault: Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and the President himself apparently accepted the idea that all would be well if the Fed simply flooded the economy with cheap money, as it had failed to do under Hoover. The costs of that economic experiment now seem likely to include the death of liberalism as we have known it. But it is also true that the Administration could have done more, much more, on a variety of fronts, had not the current Senate rules and the Republican attitude of absolute obstructionism made it so hard to do anything. The House of Representatives, indeed, has done pretty much everything a good liberal could have asked for, including rapid passage of a pretty good health care bill and financial reform legislation, cap and trade, and the repeal of legislative restrictions on gays in the military. But of those four major pieces of legislation only two passed the Senate at all, each in much watered-down form. With the economy still in tatters and the airwaves filled with accusations of a socialist in the White House, there is now a 2/3 chance, according to fivethirtyeight.com, that the House will lose its Democratic majority.
There can be no doubt, incidentally, that Republicans planned all this from the moment that Obama was elected. Plenty of them remembered 1993-4 and anticipated replaying that script. That is why Mitch McConnell made it clear to his Republican colleagues that their job was to stop anything Obama wanted to do, period. And that includes even allowing the new President to run the executive branch. 20 months into the Obama Presidency, 240 appointees are awaiting Senate confirmation. That is not an accident. If the Republicans indeed do win at least one house of Congress they will begin a round of investigations of ridiculous charges against the President and the Executive Branch, just as they did under Clinton. Some of them have already announced that strategy.
Yet the Republicans still have one huge, and growing, problem: producing a Presidential candidate who can win. Republicans with national reputation and some hope of bipartisan support find it harder and harder to be nominated, and no potential consensus figure like George W. Bush is on the horizon. Christine O'Donnell's victory in Delaware has laid bare the split between the Washington Republican establishment--including such figures as Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer, neither of whom could be called a moderate--and the other titans of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin. Like the conservatives who complained about "me too" candidates from Willkie through Eisenhower, the Tea Partiers are insisting upon ideological purity, and they may be strong enough to nominate one of their own in 2012, improving Obama's prospects dramatically.
Still, the long-term prospects for the country's economy and politics are grim indeed. Europe faces many of the same problems that we do. The European nations are taking a variety of steps, but with the possible exception of Italy, they are not showing anything like the same degree of paralysis that we are. France is raising its retirement age from 60 to 62, Britain is cutting way back on government spending, and Germany has worked carefully to maintain employment. Some of these things will work, some will not, but none of these countries include a major party dedicated to stopping the national government from doing anything constructive at all. They stand a good chance of keeping the progressive tradition alive.