Thursday, 9 July 2009

Saves Me Some Work

With the debate on healthcare heating up in the States and once again having to deal with Democratic senators threatening to filibuster their own President, I was allowing a post on the whole thing to congeal at the back of my mind, but Ed Kilgore beat me to it.
My personal feeling is that supporting a filibuster against your own party and your own party's president should be treated as a serious and rare measure on major issues of conscience where the sacrifice of some of the prerogatives of seniority are a small price to pay... at a minimum, the practice of thinking of cloture votes as identical to substantive votes, and tolerating defections on the former as just the same as the latter, needs to come to an end.
This is exactly right. Much has been said (and I think some of it on this blog) about the dangers of over-valuing party loyalty, but when we talk about that we usually mean the degree of arm-twisting that goes on behind the scenes over forcing people to vote according to the will of their party's leader. Intentionally preventing the majority of your own party from even being able to vote on legislation tied to your platform, though, is just flat-out dickish, absent tremendously compelling exceptional circumstances. People need to understand the distinction.

Update: While we're on the subject, note the dickishness of Evan Bayh. "Most senators aren't sheep," he said. "They don't just go blindly along without thinking about things, and I don't think we want them to do that."

I don't even know what that means. Allowing a vote to be held makes someone a sheep? Is that really what he's saying here? It's sheepish behaviour, the herd mentality, to actually allow people to vote their consciences? That's the exact opposite of being a sheep, surely? Bayh's problem isn't that permitting a straight up-or-down vote is sheepish behaviour, it's that he clearly wants to be a sheep on the other side.

12 comments:

BigHead said...

I would go even further and say that talking out bills is wrong even when it's a major issue of conscience.

It probably only becomes acceptable when it's a major issue of conscience and most of the people to be affected by the issue would be against it. So as a way to stop a bunch of tyrants from tyrannising people, it would be OK.

But if you disagree with people who have more votes than you? I'm afraid you just have to live with it.

SpaceSquid said...

That's what I mean by exceptional circumstances; a genuine attempt to prevent a minority being absolutely screwed by a callous majority.

Senior Spielbergo said...

The Filibuster – Meh is what I have to say. If you have a rule which basically means you need 60% approval in order to get to a vote on something, then yes it is going to be “abused” so that everything basically requires 60% approval in order to get it done. The argument that it has to be something of “exceptional circumstance” quite frankly holds no water as there is no way of defining what these “exceptional circumstances” would be. You might say the Iraq War is “exceptional” others would no doubt disagree. For others the issue of healthcare is undoubtedly one of the most important issues out there. Bottom line if you whole heartedly believe a piece of legislation should not pass and you’ve been elected to represent those views, you have a duty both to yourself and your constituents to do everything you can to prevent that bill from passing. Given one option to stop a bill by filibustering which you know will prevent the bill passing, or the other allow it to get to a vote that you know you will lose, you are therefore duty bound to filibuster.

Basically you should either get rid of the filibuster or just simply require 60% approval for anything to pass the Senate. That at the very least is transparent and simple. Personally I would do away with filibuster, but I would accept the later if it can be shown that stability and maintenance of the status quo is beneficial for society – and I suppose would at least promote cross party work as this would likely be required in order to get things done.

Healthcare – Well my view is that both the Republicans and Democrats are so far away from the plot that I can’t really side with either of them (well I can probably side with the Democrats a bit because they are at least more towards the idea of Universal Healthcare). The bottom line is that Insurance as a model is absolutely unsuitable for the provision of modern healthcare so both sides views of the situation are basically just trying to alter a system that is so fundamentally broken it will never be able to operate correctly. It requires a completely different strategy and as of yet no one has come up with a way of doing things.

SpaceSquid said...

"If you have a rule which basically means you need 60% approval in order to get to a vote on something, then yes it is going to be “abused” so that everything basically requires 60% approval in order to get it done."

Worked fine for more than two centuries though, didn't it? Almost as though there was a time when the minority party (whichever one they were) at least had some grasp of the nature of American democracy.

"Bottom line if you whole heartedly believe a piece of legislation should not pass and you’ve been elected to represent those views, you have a duty both to yourself and your constituents to do everything you can to prevent that bill from passing. Given one option to stop a bill by filibustering which you know will prevent the bill passing, or the other allow it to get to a vote that you know you will lose, you are therefore duty bound to filibuster"

That's ridiculous. Firstly, your argument is entirely predicated on not being able to have any rule designed for extraordinary circumstances in case people insist it is used routinely. Secondly,the notion that these senators have been elected "to represent those views" flatly isn't true in this case. Just because a bill is on an important topic, it doesn't mean the Senators who vote no (or yes) are more likely to follow the will of the state that elected them.

And even if that were the case, and your state wanted a bill killed, if you've been elected to serve your state over six years, then it would be idiotic in the extreme to charge full tilt at every single bill, trampling over the way you know the senate is supposed to work. Politics is a fluid game, you can't just thump the desk every single time. Political capital has to be built, reputations maintained. It's tiresome, but it needs to be done.

"Basically you should either get rid of the filibuster or just simply require 60% approval for anything to pass the Senate. That at the very least is transparent and simple."

Well, it might come to that, unfortunately, but there is a middle ground whereby rules exist to deal with extreme situations without those rules being constantly employed. Which, like I say, is what happened for more than 200 years. Watching a system suddenly become horribly abused and then suggesting that it's the system's fault seems very strange to me. It seems transparently obvious that the politicians are to blame. The system may have to be changed as a result, but it's clear where the original fault lies.

"I would accept the later if it can be shown that stability and maintenance of the status quo is beneficial for society – and I suppose would at least promote cross party work as this would likely be required in order to get things done."

Of course, if stability were good for society, you might expect to gain simple majorities for maintaining the status quo, wouldn't you?

As for cross party work, it would be a very nice idea in theory, but in the current US political climate its a fiction used to justify Republican obstructionism.

Senior Spielbergo said...

"Worked fine for more than two centuries though, didn't it? Almost as though there was a time when the minority party (whichever one they were) at least had some grasp of the nature of American democracy."

Well 80 years – While the idea of a filibuster may have been around for longer it was never actually used until more recently. And the point is that any rule which may initially by used for “extraordinary circumstance” will over time be used more and more frequently as the definition of “extraordinary” will gradually creep towards the ordinary.

See:

http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/reference/cloture_motions/clotureCounts.htm

You will note the steady increase over the last 50 years the increase in Cloture motions, as this definition becomes more and more woolly. The point is not that these particular guys are dicks. The point is that the rules are flawed and it’s only over the course of time that you realise how they can be exploited and as people realise the more “normal” this exploitation will be. You fight the battles with every tool you have at your disposal, at what once may have been unusual is now a standard practice.

Senior Spielbergo said...

“That's ridiculous. Firstly, your argument is entirely predicated on not being able to have any rule designed for extraordinary circumstances in case people insist it is used routinely.”

Not quite - My argument is that you can’t introduce any rule designed for extraordinary circumstances without appropriate safeguards to ensure it won’t end up being using routinely without realizing that if you leave it the way it is over time it will end up being used routinely. A good further example is the expenses scandal - It was introduced for one thing, but over time it evolved into something being used routinely to supplement income. Time is a good measure for all rules, and only robust ones with appropriate safeguards survive the passage of it without the flaws being exposed.

SpaceSquid said...

Oops. Yes, sorry, stupid of me to assume cloture dates back to the very beginning, sorry. I think the point stands with eighty years, though.

I've seen that chart before. Pointing out the increase in its use isn't really evidence of anything without knowing the reasons why it was used.

As to the definition of "extreme" becoming more woolly, that's just you shooting in the dark. The rule has suddenly and recently become employed as a routine obstructionist tactic, not because people don't know what "extreme" means, but because the modern Republican party is dedicated to gridlock.

And yes, these people are dicks. You know how I know they're dicks? Because the Democratic minority not so long ago would occasionally consider a filibuster (which was before I really understood American politics, but wouldn't have impressed me either) and the Republican majority would constantly rage that this was a violation of democratic procedure using an obscure Senate rule in the pursuit of mindless obstructionism.

So, not only are they abusing a leglislative procedure (something of which I concede the Democrats are not entirely innocent of themselves), they're raging hypocrites about the whole thing.

Senior Spielbergo said...

“Secondly,the notion that these senators have been elected "to represent those views" flatly isn't true in this case. Just because a bill is on an important topic, it doesn't mean the Senators who vote no (or yes) are more likely to follow the will of the state that elected them.”

This just goes back to my view that blindly supporting a party is a bad idea. You are electing an individual not a party. He might represent a party but he will have his own views and opinions on the different issues - Hence why primaries are so important - to give the opportunity for the electorate to determine which breed of democrat and which breed of republican they want on the ticket. Bottom line - that individual was elected (in theory) based on his own merits. He therefore has a duty to stand up for those beliefs.

Senior Spielbergo said...

"because the modern Republican party is dedicated to gridlock"

Isn't that the very definition of conservative? "Opposed to change"? While those who are after change may be against "gridlock" - clearly for those who don't want change "gridlock" is exactly what they are trying to achieve. Not particularly surprising therefore that a conservative party is dedicated to this gridlock.

In my personal view your perfectly correct that some things certainly do need changing (Healthcare for 1, Gun control for 2) - But I don't think it's fair to say that seeking gridlock is clearly an evil thing - at least not from a party who clearly wants such grid lock. As I said before the issue is with the rules - the rules at present support the status quo. Seek to change the rules rather than complaining about those who use those rules to achieve what they believe to be correct.

SpaceSquid said...

Apparently this needs to come in two parts. Ahem.

"Not quite - My argument is that you can’t introduce any rule designed for extraordinary circumstances without appropriate safeguards to ensure it won’t end up being using routinely without realizing that if you leave it the way it is over time it will end up being used routinely. A good further example is the expenses scandal - It was introduced for one thing, but over time it evolved into something being used routinely to supplement income. Time is a good measure for all rules, and only robust ones with appropriate safeguards survive the passage of it without the flaws being exposed."

Sorry, SS, missed this earlier. I'm not sure if I'd say the expenses scandal is a particularly good comparison, but I would entirely agree that in an ideal world we would have clear guidelines on what constitutes the sort of situation in which these rules are employed. But, (and this is why I don't like the expenses comparison), the whole point of the filibuster is to provide a way to stop those who have the most power abusing that power, which means adding on rules to how it can be used is self-defeating. It's at least arguable that the only way you can ensure the majority doesn't crush all comers is to ensure that there are certain unbreakable balances in check, that lie outside their ability to (easily) sweep aside. In theory, that sort of thinking is one of the things I admire most about the American model. This, as with so much else in their system, is at least nominally about freedom. The problem with freedom, of course, is that it only works when used responsively, which is exactly why your "Blame the rules" argument annoys me so much. You might, in fact, be correct that ultimately every rule with wiggle room will be exploited, but sometimes there are very good reasons why such rules exist, and the blame for abusing those particular rules lies with those who abuse them, not those that wrote them.

SpaceSquid said...

"This just goes back to my view that blindly supporting a party is a bad idea. You are electing an individual not a party. He might represent a party but he will have his own views and opinions on the different issues"

Broadly speaking I agree with you, but it's the idea that his or her "own views" are that certain things should not receive a vote that gets us into problems, independently of partisan politics.

"Isn't that the very definition of conservative? "Opposed to change"? While those who are after change may be against "gridlock" - clearly for those who don't want change "gridlock" is exactly what they are trying to achieve. Not particularly surprising therefore that a conservative party is dedicated to this gridlock. "

Frankly I think you're being insulting to intelligent conservatives (just ask Daniel Larison). I'd be much happier defining the term as "Opposed to change without sufficiently compelling reason". In my experience they tend to be cynical of new initiatives, taking essentially an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. Total gridlock isn't conservative; in this case it's an attempt to regain political power and line the pockets of powerful friends. There is nothing "conservative" about that (or at least there shouldn't be, thought they do often seem to go together)

"In my personal view your perfectly correct that some things certainly do need changing (Healthcare for 1, Gun control for 2) - But I don't think it's fair to say that seeking gridlock is clearly an evil thing - at least not from a party who clearly wants such grid lock. "

They can't wait to cut taxes more, though, can they? Marriage defence leglislation is something they can't get enough of, either, it would seem. This isn't about maintaining the status quo, it's about beating the Democrats. Now, that's hardly surprising in a two-party system, but attempting to pin a genuine political philosophy to it isn't going to fly.

"Seek to change the rules rather than complaining about those who use those rules to achieve what they believe to be correct."

Well, I'm not exactly massively attached to the filibuster, so it's not like I have a big problem with getting rid of it, or altering it somehow. But the degree to which someone should be lauded for doing what they believe is correct is entirely determined by what they believe is correct, why they believe it, and how they do it. The ends don't justify the means, and the GOP ends are pretty much evil in any case.

SpaceSquid said...

Oh, and I should have trusted to my dim recollections instead of folding; the first actual filibuster was in the 1930s, but the option has been there since 1806, so it has in fact worked fine for 200 years.