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Who’s Afraid of a Filibuster?

In response to:

The Specter Haunting the Senate from the September 30, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

Michael Tomasky, in “The Specter Haunting the Senate” [NYR, September 30], repeats the conventional, misguided, self-defeating notion that the Senate cannot do anything significant without sixty votes to invoke cloture on threatened filibusters. To the contrary, perhaps the most significant action the Senate majority might now take is to call the Republicans’ bluff and let them go forward with a filibuster.

Please note: if Democrats had insisted on real filibusters at several junctures during the recent years they have been in the majority, instead of giving in after failing to round up cloture votes beforehand, Republicans would have been forced to display—in public on the floor of the Senate—their obstruction to Medicare financing, as well as to funding to combat AIDs, malaria, and tuberculosis, among other issues. Harry Reid had cots brought into the Senate for an all-night session in July 2007, when Republicans started to filibuster the Iraq pullout bill, but he caved when the first cloture vote was lost.

In 1964, segregationist senators held up Senate business for fifty-seven days, filibustering against the Civil Rights Act. The filibuster revealed to America the mindset of the obstructionists and paved the way for successful actual cloture and passage of the act. The civil rights filibuster educated people about historic struggle and landmark legislation.

What is the reluctance of the Democratic majority to call the bluff of Republicans and force them to follow through on threatened filibusters? Tomasky suggests time-wasting and “polarization.” But it is also cowardice, ineptness, and laziness.

Rounding up cloture votes to forestall a filibuster is not the same as actually tackling a filibuster. It is “filibuster lite” and the cloture vote becomes a virtual vote, empowering the minority rather than overwhelming it. As a result, Congress becomes ever more opaque and Americans ever more suspicious of the legislative process, deeply endangering what is left of democratic government.

Peter d’Errico
Leverett, Massachusetts

Michael Tomasky replies:

Mr. D’Errico makes a worthwhile argument, one that has been much debated in Washington over the past two years. He might be right that had Democrats forced Republicans to mount full-blown filibusters, the Republicans would have been exposed to public rebuke or ridicule, at least in some instances. However, once an actual filibuster is undertaken, the fight becomes largely a public relations one, in which the side with the cannier talking points and better party unity would usually be more likely to prevail. Counting on the Democrats to outdo the Republicans in those departments seems a tenuous hope.

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