Another Opinion Writer Wrong about the Senate Filibuster Rule

English: The Jason Lewis Show Talk Radio Host ...

Jason Lewis

Opinion pages have less and less room for arguments that begin with facts.  Opinions, however factually incorrect, prevail over even the most empirical of facts.   I suppose these opinions pass for “discourse” or “debate”…or maybe “free speech.”  I don’t know.  But sometimes wrong is wrong.  And among the worst of the worst contributing to this mess is little talk show hit man Jason Lewis.

In his opinion column last Sunday, Jason complains about the United States Senate rule change removing the 60 vote supermajority requirement to end a filibuster.  He doesn’t have to like the change and we can argue whether or not it was a good strategy, but he argues from statements of false facts to build credibility.

First of all, Lewis all but directly credits the Founding Fathers with creating the rule in the first place.  Jason’s typically loose and sloppy style gives him wiggle room if he wants to back out, I suppose — what is “so much a part of the founders’ wisdom” that he says supports the rule, for example? — but he does this to imply that the 60 vote rule is a Constitutional issue.

As a matter of fact, the filibuster rule was established in the 20th century, the United States Constitution in the 18th century.  The founding fathers had nothing to do with it.

Moreover, the 60 vote rule began with rule changes in 1975.  Previously the rule required two-thirds of senators be present to vote to end a filibuster.  It is worth repeating:  The previous rule required senators to actually be present and voting, not merely threatening the filibuster, to filibuster.  As a result, filibusters were mostly limited to serious policy and constitutional issues.  That had changed in recent history.  The facts bear this out.  The number of filibusters in just the Obama administration exceeds the number of all previous filibusters.

So, in the end, the 60 vote rule —  one of relatively short tenure in our political history — appears to have been seriously flawed, if the record of recent years is any measure.

Of course that flaw was not obvious until today when we have a radical minority holding policy and progress hostage to narrow political objectives.  But Lewis will hold his ideas and his party blameless, to do otherwise would confront opinion with fact and who can stand for that?

And Jason Lewis loves to quote the founding fathers in his diatribes.  I have no doubt that he reads the Founding Fathers and and political history.  I’m sure he buries himself in the stuff.  The problem is he has no grasp of context and certainly no respect for accuracy.

Lewis points out, for example, that Madison was wary of simple majorities.  Ok.  One wouldn’t argue with that.  In fact, the Constitution should protect the rights of minorities.  No argument here.  But is a tyranny of a minority any better?  (And since when were conservatives interested in the rights of a minority?  Oh yeah…when they became one!)

The problem we face today isn’t so much that we have a simple majority running roughshod over a minority, it is quite the opposite.  And it is happening over issues that don’t rise to the level of Supreme Court appointments, impeachments, Constitutional amendments, treaties, vetoes, and the like.  These filibusters are about damn near everything!  It has become a tool of obstruction where the means is the ends.  It is not  about finding a better way of getting things accomplished.  The level of obstruction today has no precedent in history.  None.  Lewis can get off on his Federalist Papers all he wants, but that doesn’t change the political facts of today.

Of course it might indeed prove that the rule change eliminating the 60 vote majority to end a filibuster turns out to be a poor choice — I’m inclined to think it will come back and bite someday — but can one really argue that the 60 vote rule was working?

Real reform is needed, that’s the bottom line.  The Senate should create a rule that requires the party to do more than threaten a filibuster.  Require that the senators actually be present to vote as the rule required prior to 1975.  Would senators of either party agree to that?

As things are now, filibusters — when they really do happen — occur in mostly empty chambers, generally as a final desperate measure.  It’s pathetic.  Nothing gets done!  And that suits today’s Republican Party just fine.  They don’t want anything to get done.  Period.

Obviously something had to change.  And change it did.

The real change, however, should put some muscle back in the filibuster again.  A pragmatic working filibuster rule is one that requires active participation in the legislative process.  As things are today we allow dysfunction to govern our legislative process.  If you want the filibuster, make the minority stand behind it…literally.

And Jason…good lord, Jason…get your nose out of the books and start paying attention!


One thought on “Another Opinion Writer Wrong about the Senate Filibuster Rule

  1. DK Fennell

    It is of course a hallmark of most reactionary movements to refashion history and wrap themselves in the The current plutocrat-funded, demagogue-led and regionally-concentrated right wing of this country is no exception. And, like other similar movements, it tends to stand history on its head.

    This particular comment by the carnival barker Mr Lewis is a perfect example. Yes, it is true that many of the founders were suspicious of pure majority-rule. John Adams, for example, much preferred Republican Rome to Pure Democracy Athens. But the reason for the suspicions, especially among the advocates for the Constitution, was not the tendency of the majority to be wrong but its tendency to be co-opted by groups, privately organized, relying on demagoguery and motivated not by reasoned debate but by group-think. In other words, the very thing that the Tea Party represents. They called it “faction.”

    The Federalist Papers devoted two letters (9 and 10) to this concern. The first written by Alexander Hamilton. I won’t quote him, because although the more conservative of the two, he is ignored by the Tea Party because he was most vocal in his support of the virtues of National Debt. (In fact, the principal motivating force behind the Constitution was the belief in the need for a strong enough federal government to issue securities (debt) to pay off long overdue war debts). So I will quote Madison, who wrote letter 10, who defines faction thus:

    “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

    This of course perfectly describes the Tea Party itself. Madison goes on and explains why it is necessary to devise a strong government to regulate (by opposing its influence) such aggregation of interest. It is worth reading the whole letter, because it is offers a nuanced analysis of how to deal with factions, which Madison and Hamilton believe to be a dangerous but inherently human tendency.

    Of course the filibuster rule had become the principal tool of our modern and most noticeable faction. There is no doubt that Madison would have advocated its abolition under these circumstances.


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