October 17th, 2008

Ignorance of government: the filibuster—who knew?

When Republicans try to point out the efforts Bush, McCain, and other Republicans made to curb the excesses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac back when it might have done some good, one of the responses Democrats offer is: “hey, Republicans were in charge of Congress until 2006, so if restraints on Fannie and Freddie didn’t get passed then it must have been the Republicans’ fault.”

This tells me that such commenters either are dissembling, or they are hugely ignorant about what used to be called “civics” back when I was in school.

Perhaps those Ayers & Company-engendered “reforms” about teaching “social justice” have persuaded schools to ditch the sort of courses that used to teach us how our government actually works. Or maybe the current ignorance of same has little to do with Ayers, or with schools at all. Maybe these things are taught but nobody’s listening and nobody’s remembering—after all, it’s dull and boring and has nothing to do with our daily lives, right?

Wrong. Whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, and no matter which party (or parties) one prefers to blame, the current economic crisis does indeed have to do with how government works—or fails to work—most especially the question of how to get things done in a government not completely controlled by one party or another.

That’s the sort of government we usually have. And that’s the sort of government we had during the Bush Administration, even from 2000 to 2006 when Republicans were nominally in control of both Congress and the Presidency. The fact is that their control of the Senate was very tenuous: for most those years the split between the parties in that body was essentially 50/50, with mild fluctuations due to deaths and changes in party affiliation. By far the largest majority the Republicans ever had in the Senate in those years was during the two years prior to the 2006 election, 55 Republicans to 45 Democrats.

That’s not enough to end the power of the filibuster, a way the minority can block legislation by the majority unless the latter has sixty votes in favor of a bill. Sixty votes is the magic number needed to force cloture, which ends the logjam.

The result of all of this is that unless a party has a supermajority of sixty or more in the Senate (the House works by simple majority) it cannot force its legislation through if the opposing minority party has signaled its will to filibuster. The filibuster doesn’t even have to happen; it’s enough that the minority makes is clear that it will happen and that efforts to pass the bill are futile.

This is apparently what happened with the bill to reform Fannie and Freddie. No doubt the parties differ on whether passage of that particular Republican-sponsored (and McCain-sponsored) bill would have actually helped forestall the current crisis. But my point here is that a statement that Republicans somehow could have made it happen, when they actually did not have enough votes to do so and when Democrats had already indicated their firm and united opposition, is ignoring the way Congress works.

The way Congress works is that it often doesn’t get things done, due to divided government. If the President is of a different party than the majority in Congress, he/she has the power of the veto as well, and a supermajority of two-thirds is needed to override it. Although these various checks on the power of the majority may be seen as a drawback when it’s your party that’s in control, be careful: you’ll want those same curbs when it’s the other party in the driver’s seat.

Despite our ignorance (or perhaps because of it) of the way majority and minority government functions in this country, we may be headed for a demonstration of real majority power. If Barack Obama becomes President and Democrats sweep both the Senate and the House and get at least sixty seats in the former, defeating all filibuster attempts, we are in for the most unchecked power for a single party since the mid-30s or mid-60s. If you liked what happened back then (or if your parents or grandparents did), you’ll probably love what’s likely to happen now.

For a preview of what that might be, check out this article in the Wall Street Journal, which just may be the most important pre-election piece that’s been published. Send it to everyone you know; perhaps it will be a wake-up call to some.

26 Responses to “Ignorance of government: the filibuster—who knew?”

  1. harry McHitlerburtonstein the Conservative Extremist Says:

    “Maybe these things are taught but nobody’s listening and nobody’s remembering—after all, it’s dull and boring and has nothing to do with our daily lives, right?”

    Or it just doesnt fit the narrative.

    How many occasions on the forum do we see liberals pop in, drop off the latest popular factoid, get called on it by several conservative commenter’s, only to return with the next popular factoid with out either addressing their original post or even acknowledge ever issuing it? Its not about thinking. Its about emoting. It’s about “I dont care! I want a pony!!!”.

  2. SF Says:

    “How many occasions on the forum . . .”

    Right. Because, like, liberals are stupid and conservatives are so smart. Indeed.

    To paraphrase Obama, the level of discourse you engage in says more about you than it does about liberals – or anything else you wish to disparage.

  3. The Mainstreaming of Bill Ayers Says:

    […] More, from neo-neocon. Posted by Jeff G. @ 11:04 am | Trackback SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “The […]

  4. harry McHitlerburtonstein the Conservative Extremist Says:

    Why do I think your going to become the next perfect example SF?

    By the way, nice empty paraphrase. Do you realize its reversable?

  5. Luke Says:

    I’m sorry if this is off-topic. I just can’t get it out of my mindhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfKwzBMjxYw

  6. spoot Says:

    Obama will have a Dem majority but you seem to think that if he gets 60 Dems that this will be the end of fillibusters. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the party.

    We are not as homogenous as the GOP, nor do we have as much of the party discipline. You forget how many Dems are blue dogs, that is centrist or conservative pols from the south and the west. Many of these pols won in red districts because they hold many of the same positions as their Rep. opponents, but they were not associated with the Bush years.

    These guys (and gals) will not follow the Liberal agenda of Pelosi and Obama. This is why the FISA bill passed and why in spite of the war’s unpopularity, it still gets funded.

    Obama will have a lot of pull in his first year but if he falters, it will be every man for himself. We Dems are like cats, you cannot herd us. Reps are like dogs, they follow the Alpha male.

    I figure he has about a year to get things going. Success in that first year, and good press, gives him a good shot at the next year. But if he doesn’t do well in 2010, an election year, then he will lose some seats, who knows how many.

    I predict that the GOP, working with the Blue Dog Dems, will be able to make enough changes in legislation that you will grudgingly accept what comes out of the congressional sausage factory. Nobody will be happy with the results, except those that don’t follow politics.

  7. spoot Says:

    Oops, my bad. I forgot to introduce myself. Long time reader but never commented, mostly because of lack of time.

    I disagree with much of what you write, Neoneocon, but love to read your blog. I would love to sit at a bar with you over some pints and swap tales and arguments until they kicked us out!

  8. harry McHitlerburtonstein the Conservative Extremist Says:

    Well spoot, its the kind of argument I have been having with a couple of moderate democrats or light conservatives who are mostly focused on the single issue of abortion for why they prefer Obama over McCain/Palin. I doubt you would see anything in the way of significant abortion legislation pushed through because I dont think there would be enough votes on both sides of the isle to approve it. I dont think a single issue is their only concern, (I hope not), but we’re trying to keep it simple for now.

    BTW: Happy to have you along.

  9. harry McHitlerburtonstein the Conservative Extremist Says:


    I dont see abortion becoming a significant issue if Mccain/Palin were in the White House.

    Just clarification.

  10. neo-neocon Says:

    spoot: I’ve thought about that type of argument before, but although I sincerely hope you are correct, I don’t see it happening that way very often.

    First of all, I haven’t noticed much of a difference between the parties on which group is easier or harder to herd. If the leaders are tough and nasty enough, and willing to punish those who transgress (that is, who vote against the party line), most will climb on board in either party. I haven’t noticed many Profiles in Courage lately, although there have been some (nor have I noticed more on one side rather than the other).

    Reid and Pelosi are as nasty and partisan as they come, and will no doubt declare war on any Democrats who dare to challenge their Great Leap Forward.

    That said, they are also pretty incompetent, fortunately. I will hope their incompetence triumphs over their plans—or that they don’t gain the mystical sixty Senators they desire.

    Would love to sit at a bar and chat but I wouldn’t be much for the pints, I’m afraid—perhaps you’ve read about how I’m not much of a drinker.

  11. Coot Says:

    Spoot is hallucinatin’! Out, damn Spoot! Back down in the vile pits with ye, I says!

  12. mrs whatsit Says:

    Luke, your link doesn’t work — at least not for me.

  13. SteveH Says:

    I’d say political correctness and its MSM dispensers of judgement would make a 60/40 republican majority behave more like 50/50.

    Not making excuses for them. Just saying that extortion used to sway votes often works.

  14. John G. Spragge Says:

    One meme here seems to involve the putative guilt of Democrat legislators for not backing a bill to regulate fannie & freddie. I find myself wondering why the article linked from this weblog that condemns them does not mention that a regulatory body to oversee fannie mae and freddy mac already existed; in fact, a body exclusively devoted to regulating them already existed.

    Now, maybe Congress could have cured this failure of government oversight with more oversight, more regulations, and more regulators. You can certainly argue that if you want, although frankly I think a Reagan conservative would have trouble with the notion that more government will cure a malfunctioning government. But to attack the Democrats for not voting to regulate fannie & freddie without explaining how the old regulators failed and the new regulations would have fixed that failure leaves a somewhat incomplete picture.

  15. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    I think the word “control” when used of Congress is revealing. There is some justification for it as a shorthand, I suppose, but it conceals more than it illuminates. 51-49 is not “control” of the Senate in any real sense, nor is 55-45. In the high 50’s it starts to be true, but 60 is the real cutoff. The Democrats have had control in that sense a few times, but the Republicans, not for decades – either house.

    A bare majority is seen as “control” by narcissists who believe that when their control is thwarted, the others must have “control.” Compromise and negotiation are seen as unfair burdens. Democrats seem to believe that having things their way is the natural order of things. I readily grant that there are Republicans who take the same attitude, but contend that this narcissism is stronger on the Democratic side. It is human nature to acclimate to what one expects and feel one deserves it. The Democrats are used to a majority over decades – they believe that is normal, and any reduction of that is some unfairness of life.

    This has led to some unusual new ideas in government: The new idea in the 1980’s that confirmation of Supreme Court justices should include partisan ideology; the idea that Bush should share power in unprecedented ways with the Democrats in 2000 because his victory was narrow (he did, and a fat lot of good will that bought him); the intention declared on the House floor to try a president for war crimes while we are still at war.

    The Democrats long ago decided that permanent campaigning, regardless of circumstance, is the path they would take. They interrupted this for only 5 months in 2001-2. It is politically wise, but morally evil to do this.

    As to variety of Democrats, that became true in 2006. It was far less true of Democrats than Republicans for the 25 years prior. They were very good at party discipline.

  16. strcpy Says:

    “First of all, I haven’t noticed much of a difference between the parties on which group is easier or harder to herd. If the leaders are tough and nasty enough, and willing to punish those who transgress (that is, who vote against the party line), most will climb on board in either party. I haven’t noticed many Profiles in Courage lately, although there have been some (nor have I noticed more on one side rather than the other).”

    I generally agree – each member of congress seems to mostly pick their party based on a very few ideas that they hold near and dear. Outside of that everything is up for grabs. They will move towards the side that will get them the best position they can find on the things that they really care about.

    This is why I do not like McCain very much. Of his “near and dear” ideas I only agree with one (national security) and those that I hold near and dear he sides with the dems more often than not (doing so gets him more positive press). With Obama I either do not know (and in those cases I find myself forcefully disagreeing with the people whom he has chosen to surround himself with) or find him diametrically opposed to my beliefs. That puts me in a position of, while not finding him a *good* candidate, I find McCain to be a *HIGHLY* superior candidate to the opposition.

    “That said, they are also pretty incompetent, fortunately. I will hope their incompetence triumphs over their plans—or that they don’t gain the mystical sixty Senators they desire.”

    I’ve always found relying on the opposition to not be as good as they can be at getting what they want a *really* bad idea. Now, I always hope that is the case (and surely do now), however to not worry over it (and even vote for Obama as some suggest) because he isn’t as bad as he appears is foolish. Of course, I’ve been a long enough reader to know that isn’t really what you meant, I just felt that needed to be said.

    I will also add that I find in the coming years that the two sides (whomever is in power) will force the filibuster. Too many have been bit by not opposing something or supporting something enough. Articles explaining that the threat of one is enough sounds too much like rationalization and will be seen as such (even though it is historically true).

    There are MANY that are dismissing the Repubs stance of the dems would have filibustered as partisan politics. There is, obviously, no proof that they would have (how can there be as we only have the word of lying and greedy congress critters that this is the case – those that threatened it are denying as hard and fast as they can) and lots of talking about how it was just an excuse. My bet is if they are in a similar position again they will start requiring stances other than “present” to be taken. Dems will also if they are smart and truly believe in their ideas (which I think they mostly do).

    Threat only works when there is something to back it up. Threat also is usually dismissed (usually there is nothing there to back it up) by those outside the actual conflict. I think politics is moving towards the idea of calling ones bluff – when you do call it you find out who is actually the stronger and that can be a scary thing.

  17. Rose Says:

    Luke’s link works IF you remove the word mind from the url… Death Of The Emperor and Redemption Of Anakin Skywalker
    but is it related to what is being said here?

  18. Beverly Says:

    Here’s a civics lesson for you:

    “We Will Not Be Silenced”

    This documentary is about the disenfranchising of American citizens by the Democratic Party and the Obama Campaign. We the People have made this film. Democrats have sent in their stories from all parts of America.

    We want to be heard and let the country know how our party has sanctioned the actions of what we feel are Obama Campaign “Chicago Machine” dirty politics. We believe this infamous campaign of “change” from Chicago encouraged and created an army to steal caucus packets, falsify documents, change results, allow unregistered people to vote, scare and intimidate Hillary supporters, stalk them, threaten them, lock them out of their polling places, silence their voices and stop their right to vote, which is, of course, all documented in “We Will Not Be Silenced.”

    “We Will Not Be Silenced” is about the people who fight back by simply telling their stories: Teachers, professors, civil rights activists, lawyers, janitors, physicists, ophthalmologists, accountants, mathematicians, retirees – all bound together by their love of America and Democracy.

    They will tell us their experiences and how they feel betrayed by their own party. They will discuss how their party has disenfranchised them and how, when they saw and reported multiple instances of fraud, everyone turned a blind eye.

    Rather than support and protect the voices and votes of its loyal members, the DNC chose to sweep this under the rug by looking the other way, or using ceremony and quasi-investigations to assuage angry voters. It is our opinion there never before has been such a “dirty” campaign; the campaign that has broken the hearts and spirits of American voters, who once believed in the Democratic voting system.

    We are not angry liberals; we are disappointed Democrats, who love our country and feel the DNC needs to stand for truth, care about its voter base and stop committing actions worse than what we only thought possible of the worst Republicans. The DNC and the Obama Campaign need to be held accountable for the catastrophe of the 2008 Democratic Primary.”

  19. Sergey Says:

    Most of the real life happens outside of government control; society is too complex to be effectively controlled, except in case you can actually destroy and terrorize it, which is in USA is practically impossible. While totalitarian goals of hard left are undeniable, their ability to achieve them in the present cultural situation of 50/50 split is very doubtful, while a fierce counteraction at such attempt is almost inevitable.

  20. Beverly Says:



  21. br549 Says:

    Beverly, I can only imagine how many Democrats must feel betrayed. My parents were Democrats, both hailing from New England – being Boston and Providence. Neither would recognize the Democrat party today.

    I do not think, however, the Republican comment was necessary, and especially do not feel it was true.

    I just cannot understand how anyone could vote for Obama, how anyone can believe him. It is pure hatred for Bush and the Republicans, and want of revenge for Billy boy. It is emotional, not logical. Nothing else makes sense to me.

  22. Al Fin Says:

    The Obama campaign is in possession of some extremely sophisticated brain modification techniques, adopted from cognitive science. The current campaign has been a time of experimentation. After the election, will come the time of consolidation of control.

    br549: You may think that what you wrote came from your own mind. Think again. You were instructed to write exactly that.

    This thing has gotten out of control. I tried to sto

  23. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Al Fin – now that was cute. It’s an old technique, but you played it well.

  24. br549 Says:

    al fin

    Gee, I don’t get it.

  25. I R A Darth Aggie Says:

    You forget how many Dems are blue dogs, that is centrist or conservative pols from the south and the west.

    Yes, and?

    Did you have a point there?

    The Dem leaders have ways of making such newbies toe the party line. How many of those vaunted Blue dawgs voted against the $700 billion bailout package the first time, and then voted for it when it passed?

    Nancy and Steny know how to crack a whip. Maybe you don’t get on a certain committee, maybe your pet legislation gets deep-sixed, maybe your earmarks get removed, maybe they go so far as to support a primary challenger in your next election cycle.

    The Dems maybe fractured, but the leaders at the top know how to apply the right amount of pressure when it’s needed…

  26. mw Says:

    Great post. I have been beating the divided government drum for two years on my blog. I voted for John Kerry to get divided government in 2004 and lost. I supported a straight Dem ticket in 2006 to get divided government and won. This year I will vote to re-elect divided government by supporting John McCain.

    This scholarly article from a Constitutional lawyer puts more than a little academic cred behind the divided government thesis. The only way to re-elect Divided Government in 2008, is elect John McCain for President. It is the right thing to do.

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