Reforming the Senate

Ezra Klein reports on efforts in the Senate to reform the filibuster rule in the Senate:

The problem with a president promising to “change Washington” is that the presidency isn’t the part of Washington that’s broken. The systemic gridlock, dysfunction and polarization that so frustrate the country aren’t located in the executive branch. They’re centered in Congress. And one of their key enablers is Senate Rule XXII — better known as the filibuster.

Filibusters used to be relatively rare. There were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined. A strategy memo written after the 1964 election by Mike Manatos, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Senate liaison, calculated that in the new Senate, Medicare would pass with 55 votes — the filibuster didn’t even figure into the administration’s planning.

There were more filibusters between in the 111th Congress (2009-2010) than in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s combined. (Data:, Graph: Ezra Klein)

Today, the filibuster isn’t used to defend minority rights or ensure debate. Rather, the filibuster is simply a rule that the minority party uses to require a 60-vote supermajority to get anything done in the Senate. That’s not how it was meant to be.

And it’s not how it has to be. The Constitution states that each chamber of Congress “may determine the rules of its proceedings.” And this week’s election has provided fresh evidence that the Senate, at least, may be preparing to remake its most pernicious rule.

Chris Murphy, the incoming Democratic senator from Connecticut, couldn’t have been clearer: “The filibuster is in dire need of reform,” he told Talking Points Memo. “Whether or not it needs to go away, we need to reform the way the filibuster is used, so it is not used in the order of everyday policy, but is only used in exceptional circumstances.”

Angus King, the independent senator-elect from Maine, said, “My principal issue is the functioning of the Senate.” He backs a proposal advanced by the reform group No Labels that would end the filibuster on motions to debate, restricting filibusters to votes on actual legislation. The group also wants to require filibustering senators to physically hold the Senate floor and talk, rather than simply instigate a filibuster from the comfort of their offices.

via Is this the end for the filibuster?.

The problem, in my opinion, is that the filibuster has become just a procedural matter to be invoked at will–basically, a threat to filibuster–so as to require a 60-vote supermajority on Senate actions (60 votes being the number of votes required to shut off debate).  I think the filibuster should be returned to its earlier days of glory, in which a Senator had to stay on the floor speaking for as long as he could to delay action, just like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

But, as part of filibuster reform and perhaps more importantly, I would like to reform the Senate so as to restore the importance of floor debate.  As it is, when you go as a visitor to our nation’s Capitol and sit in the Senate gallery, typically, nothing is happening.  Virtually no Senators are present.  The chair presides–a position constitutionally given to the Vice-President and potentially conveying real power and responsibility, but now that task is delegated to a revolving cast of members.  A few individual Senators are reading statements to be entered into the Congressional Record, mainly for the benefit of their constituents.  There is some back-and-forth debate on bills, but it is mostly canned and pro-forma, with few senators in a position to be persuaded, or even, usually, in attendance.  Only when a vote is called do the Senators as a whole enter the chamber.  Virtually all business is conducted in committees, rather than on the floor.  On the whole, though, what was once called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” does little collective deliberation anymore.

I’d like to see the Senate strengthen the quorum rules so as to require senators to be present while the Senate is convened.  They could still do committee work.   There could be fewer actual sessions.  But the whole genius of legislative government depends on  the wisdom of a collective group as opposed to that of atomize individuals and we are in danger of losing that in the legislative branch.

Debate post-mortem

Thanks to everybody who live-blogged the debates with me.  As has been said, “that was fun.”  The instant back-and-forth in real time made for a lively online conversation.  We’ll have to look for other opportunities to do that sort of thing.  (Any ideas for that?  Live-blogging the World Series?  The Oklahoma/Notre Dame game?  The Oscars?  American Idol?  Or maybe we’d better just wait four more years.)

At any rate, what did you think of the debate as a whole?  Who gets the advantage?

Live-blogging the final presidential debate

I’m on the road, but I hope to get back to my hotel room in order to comment on the debate.  If I’m not here, you go on without me.  (Just add your “comments,” refreshing the page periodically to follow what other people are saying.)

The debate is supposed to focus on international relations.  (We’ll see how well the candidates adhere to that topic.)  Take a drink of your caffeine-free-diet-soda or other beverage every time you hear the following:

(1)  “jobs in China”

(2)  “another war in the Mideast”

(3)  “throw under the bus”

(4)  “America’s respect in the world”


What presidential debates do

Tonight is the final presidential candidate debate.  Help me live-blog it tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET.

I think the significance of the debates is not so much whether one candidate scores more points than another, zings his opponent more effectively, or makes or avoids gaffes.  What the debates do for us voters is to allow us to see the two candidates side by side.  We can also hear them unfiltered by the news media, the punditocracy, or political advertising.  What the public wants to see is whether or not the two candidates are articulate, intelligent, can think on their feet, can master a host of complicated facts and information.  Granted, being able to do all of that will not make a person a good president.  But the absence of those traits is, for most people, a disqualifier.  Notice how so many of the candidates in the Republican primary could not measure up to those relatively simple standards.

Mitt Romney has benefited from the debates because, in the comparison with Barack Obama, he has emerged as presidential, someone who comes across, at least, as equal to the current president.  So he has become, in many voters’ mind, a plausible candidate.  He didn’t really seem that way in the scrum of the primary, but now he does.

I know, scholars have made the case that debates don’t matter, that polls don’t matter, that campaigns don’t matter.  They have said that the economy is all that matters.  But this time we are seeing that the economy may not matter either; otherwise, Romney would be running away with the election.  The point is, no one can predict the outcome with certainty, any more than a mere mortal–Biblical prophets excepted– can predict any other future event.

By the way, I am not backing off my mere-mortal-and-thus-uncertain prediction that Obama will win, even as Romney rises in the polls.  I think Obama still has an advantage in the electoral college.  But, as is so often the case, I will be glad to be wrong.

So who won this debate?

Thanks for the live blog from last night.  So who won this debate?

Do you think the more aggressive stance from Obama, with the two candidates getting into each other’s space and into each other’s face, paid off?

How will this debate play with undecided voters and the general public?

Liveblogging Debate #2

Here we go again.  For our not-necessarily-alcoholic drinking game, let’s knock one back when we hear the following words (and thanks for your suggestions, from which some of these are drawn):

(1)  Look

(2)  Big Bird

(3)  Arithmetic

(4)  47%

(5)  We can do better

The following words are highly unlikely to be mentioned, so if they come up, fill up your glass:

(1)  Drones

(2)  Syria

All right.  Ready?  Go.