Why Filibuster Reform Matters

Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin on the unprecedented use of filibusters under President Obama (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press) via The Atlantic
Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin on the unprecedented use of filibusters under President Obama (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press) via The Atlantic

Imagine for a moment that the US Senate is like a train with 100 people on board. The majority party gets to appoint the conductor, but in extraordinary situations, any one of the passengers can pull the emergency brake and stop the train. As one would expect, use of the emergency brake would be reserved for emergencies. If the emergency brake gets pulled once every few years, it probably means that the passengers are not abusing their responsibilities and can be trusted with it. If they pull it on 70 percent of trips, then we have a problem and it should be obvious to everyone that these yankers are simply trying to prevent the train from getting to its destination. Last week, the Senate agreed to limit the use of this emergency brake.

Like most stories in the news cycle, the Senate’s recent filibuster reform was a big deal for a day or two, and was then promptly forgotten. It’s worth taking a moment to think about what it means for the future of American democracy.

So what is a filibuster? It’s a procedure by which one senator can stand and speak for as long as he/she wishes in order to postpone/prevent a vote on a piece of legislation or a confirmation (not unlike an emergency brake on a train). It effectively gives all 100 senators the power to veto anything. In order to override a filibuster, 60 senators must come together and invoke “cloture” which basically forces the rambling senator to shut up. The filibuster is featured prominently in the 1939 Hollywood film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (sound familiar?) in which a young senator uses the tactic to prevent the passage of an unjust law.

Is a filibuster good or bad? A filibuster is good because it’s a check on the power of the majority party; in extraordinary situations, the minority party can stand in the way of something they feel very passionately about. A filibuster is bad because it gives the minority party the ability to filibuster every little thing, even in non-extraordinary situations, effectively preventing the majority party from governing.

This bad scenario is exactly what’s been going on for the past five years. Both parties are guilty of abusing the filibuster, but the under the Obama presidency, this tool has been abused to an extent unprecedented in American history. Just about everything requires 60 votes to pass now.

This is not the way to run a government. It’s one thing to oppose a president. It’s reckless, however, to stand in the way of routine business and prevent the president and his party from governing. And that is why Harry Reid (Senate Majority Leader) went nuclear last week.

What’s the nuclear option? This refers to the recent vote in the Senate, which passed by 52-48, that eliminated the filibuster for all executive branch nominees and federal judicial nominations (other than the Supreme Court). On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much at all, let alone nuclear.

But why is this a big deal? The vote itself is not as remarkable as the fact that it became necessary. Let’s not pretend that government dysfunction is new. In some ways, bipartisanship is a myth that never existed. Conflict and hatred are old, but the current level of obstruction is new. The reason the recent “nuclear option” is such a big deal is that it’s an open admission that our polarized political climate is irreconcilable – one side will have to win.

In some ways, this is the end of congressional propriety, and it’s not because Washington is divided. It’s because the country is divided. It’s not as if filibustering Republican senators are scorned by their constituents for getting in Obama’s way. They’re treated like heroes. Every society must deal with the contradictory forces that pull it apart and keep it together. This contradiction is currently manifesting itself in ways not seen since the civil rights era. There is no consensus on how to govern. And this speaks to a larger problem. There is no consensus on what it means to be an American.

Urban Rural Politics: America’s Biggest Divide

The starkest divide in American political culture is not between north and south. It is not between whites and “minorities” – not even heartland and coasts. Nothing captures the red-blue divide in the US quite like the disparity between cities and suburban/rural areas.

In 2008, something peculiar happened in Nebraska. The state’s 2nd congressional district, which contains the city of Omaha, voted for Barack Obama. On the map, the district is basically a dot of blue in a sea of red. This happened in Nebraska because it’s one of only two states that award electoral college votes by district rather than “winner takes all”. If Texas allocated votes by congressional district, then surely Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin would be similar blue dots. Similarly, vast swaths of upstate New York would be red.2008 Omaha

For the Obama campaign, Nebraska’s 2nd district was not necessary for victory, but it was a nice cherry on top of their cake. While anomalous in terms of electoral history, the story of Omaha captures what’s going on in cities and states throughout the country.

The following is the results of the 2012 Presidential election by county. Red is Republican, blue is Democrat.2012_Presidential_Election_by_County

The following is a map of US population density by county. Yellow is low density, blue is high density.US population density 2000 The similarities tell a much larger story about America today. Where we live has a whole lot to do with how we live and what we believe. Perhaps we choose where to live based on the latter – a chicken and egg problem essentially. Either way, any real conceptualization of the red-blue divide in the US that focuses too much on East coast tendencies, or Midwest values is ignoring the real story.

According to The Atlantic, 27 of America’s 30 biggest cities voted for Obama in 2012 – that’s 90 percent! Furthermore, cities are getting bluer and rural areas are getting redder. We are constantly being warned that our country is becoming increasingly polarized. At least we know now where that battle lines and boundaries are being drawn.

The Bitter Bluff of Secession

If the secession petitioners actually got their way, they’d be a lot worse off and the rest of us would be a lot better off.

For a brief moment after the recent election, I had hope. Prominent conservatives had publicly admitted that Obamacare is the law of the land (given the electoral results, its repeal could no longer be a priority) and that raising the top marginal income tax rate would not be the end of the world. It seemed as though we might actual have a period of bipartisanship. Some folks just didn’t get the memo.

The White House’s website has a section called We the People which allows people to start online petitions. Any petition that garners more than 25,000 signatures will get an official response from the President. There are currently petitions in all 50 states to secede from the Union due to the “unfortunate” results of the election. Other than Florida, which voted for Obama, every other state that has accumulated the requisit 25,000 signatures (Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina) voted for Romney.

This is yet another case of red state blue state foolishness. The Romney states want to leave? If they did, the rest of the country would be better off (financially at least). With the exception of Texas, every single one of those other states get more from the federal government than they give. These states are the real moochers.

I’ve written before that blue states have been subsidizing red states for years, but thanks to these petitions, this discrepancy has been getting a lot more attention recently. If you didn’t like the links in the previous post, here’s some more in the secession context:

I still have hope that we will have at least a few months of uncomfortable and reluctant bipartisanship. But this whole secession business is nonsense. If a Texan you know wants to secede, tell them to relax. If anyone you know from the confederacy of takers wants to secede, let them know how lucky they are that nobody takes them seriously.

For anyone interested, there’s another petition on the White House’s website, entitled “Deport Everyone That Signed A Petition To Withdraw Their State From The United States Of America“. As of this writing, it has 22,601 signatures and has just over 3 weeks to get the remaining 2,399.

Human Development Index among red and blue states

It’s easy to get confused by the endless red-state blue-state rhetoric during this election season (which is to say, the past six years). It’s worthwhile to take a look at how people live across the divide.

In this week’s New Republic, Jonathan Cohn’s Blue States are from Scandinavia, Red States are from Guatemala explores the historical roots of this great American divide. Cohn argues that there are affectively two countries in the United States. In one, government is seen as a mechanism to ensure that as many people as possible have their basic necessities taken care of. This is expensive. In the other “country”, government costs very little and provides very little.

What are the consequences of this divide? As Cohn points out “by nearly every measure, people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states…The four states with the highest poverty rates are all red: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. And the five states with the lowest poverty rates are all blue. Since it’s difficult to measure “nearly every measure” the next best thing is to look at the American Human Development Index developed by the Social Science Research Council, and inspired by the global HDI commissioned by UNDP. The AHDI takes into consideration things like health, education and overall standard of living.

The following is a list of the states (and DC) with the highest AHDIs and the states with the lowest AHDIs.

American Human Development Index 2010/11
12 Highest 12 Lowest
Connecticut  6.30 
 North Carolina  4.64
Massachusetts  6.24  New Mexico  4.56
Washington, D.C.         6.21  Montana  4.49
New Jersey  6.16  South Carolina         4.36
Maryland  5.96  Tennessee  4.33
New York  5.77  Kentucky  4.23
Minnesota  5.74  Oklahoma  4.15
New Hampshire  5.73  Alabama  4.09
Hawaii  5.73  Louisiana  4.07
Colorado  5.65  Mississippi  3.93
Rhode Island  5.56  Arkansas  3.87
California  5.56  West Virginia  3.85

With the exception of two swing states, every single one of the top AHDI states is blue. There are zero red states at the top – the highest ranked red state is Alaska, coming in at number 17. Continue reading “Human Development Index among red and blue states”