Set a Fire Under Obama — and Abolish the Filibuster

The stimulus bill has been larded with tax cuts which will have virtually no impact on aggregate demand, and infrastructural spending which does have demonstrated immediate positive effect on aggregate demand has been trimmed back, to placate Republicans by a pusillanimous Obama administration. And despite the Obama administration’s determination to have a kumbaya moment with right-wing Republicans, not a single House Republican voted for the scaled-back stimulus package. This is a recipe for another Great Depression.

Obama supporters point out that he needs 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a Republican filibuster, and will only have 59 once Franken is seated (God alone knoweth when that will happen, and perhaps only 58 if Lieberman channels Vikdun Quisling again). Since Obama is essentially conservative, as reflected in all his economic appointments, and unlikely to challenge the status quo without substantial progressive pressure, it is incumbent on progressives to apply that pressure and to lean on Senate Democrats to smack the Republicans down hard by abolishing the anti-democratic filibuster rule.

Contrary to popular misconception, filibuster was neither a constitutional provision nor part of the original Senate rules. A simple majority could close debate from the adoption of the constitution until a rules change during the recodification of Senate rules under Vice President Aaron Burr’s supervision in 1806. There is debate among historians whether the rule allowing unlimited debate in the Senate was an unintentional error or was introduced by Burr in anticipation of conflict with President Jefferson’s administration. In any case, it overturned the original procedure used by the Senate.

The filibuster was not used until debates over the National Bank in the 1830s and its repeated use in that period culminated in an attempt by Henry Clay to restore the Senate’s ability to close debate by simple majority vote, which failed only narrowly. Republican Senate obstructionism to President Wilson’s war policies led to a threat by the Democratic majority to restore simple majority vote to close debate and this action was averted only by adoption of Rule 22, which permitted the Senate to vote cloture by a three-fifths majority. This is the rule under which the Senate currently operates.

The history of the filibuster has not been particularly distinguished, being primarily the refuge of southern racists to thwart civil rights legislation and right-wing Republicans to attack the New Deal, the Great Society, and progressive judicial appointments under Democratic Presidents.

Obama’s “bipartisanship” is nothing more than Clinton’s “triangulation” dressed up as “change we can believe in.” Progressives know very well that “bipartisanship” only ends up with Republican-crafted policies being implemented by Democrats, because it is always the Democrats who have to yield to intransigent Republicans. If FDR had tried to win a Republican majority for Social Security, there would be no Social Security today. The same goes for the Voting Rights Act and Medicare under LBJ. If LBJ had tried Obama’s nonsensical approach to dealing with right-wing Republicans, there would be no President Obama today.

Progressives need to set a fire under Obama to cease caving in to failed Republican policies. It’s time to remind him that the Republicans are the party of Hoover, Reagan and Bush — the authors of the failed policies that have twice brought us to economic collapse in a century — and that the Democrats are the party of FDR and LBJ.

And a major step forward would be to prevent further Republican obstructionism by abolishing the filibuster rule in the Senate and restoring the cloture by simple majority rule that the founders adopted.

Unless, of course, we want 20% unemployment by this time next year.


  1. You need to do your homework —

    Yr Senator Party
    1992 D’Amato Rep
    1981 Proxmire Dim
    1957 Thurmond Dim
    1953 Morse Dim
    1941 Long Dim

    See a pattern? Most filibusters have been democratic in origin. Oh and which party got the 2 track rule so you can have a filibuster without bringing the Senate of a halt? Democrats.

    And do we need to mention that the southern racists you cite WERE Democratic as well.

    Change the rules if you wish, but quit the airbrushing.

  2. You cherrypick examples. Take the cases back to 1919 and you’ll see that the majority were Republicans.

    And I never said that the southern racists were Republicans (although the majority of them who were Dems in the early 1960s had become Republicans by Nixon’s second term).

  3. Greg! Good to have you back.

    I confess, I am reluctant to see the filibuster abolished for two reasons. First, the wheel of politics inevitably turns. The Dems will again someday be in the minority, and will need the filibuster.

    But I also think Nate Silver’s piece on the Republican death spiral is reason to give the Rs enough rope to hange themselves.

Comments are closed