"Why won’t They Reform the Filibuster?"

Ezra Klein posted an article Friday about “Six things Obama has done Wrong.” His last point on the administration’s failures is their inability to change the filibuster. The filibuster has undoubtedly created problems for Democrats. As Klein mentioned, it held up just about everything since the stimulus package. However, I disagree with his reasoning for why filibuster reform has not occurred. In essence, Klein argues that American’s weren’t exposed to the argument that the administration’s shortcomings were a result of Republican obstruction. I think his take is both right and wrong. He’s right in the sense that not enough attention is directed at the filibuster. He’s wrong in the sense that it hasn’t received much attention. Let me make this a bit clearer. Filibuster reform has received a good amount of attention this Congress. In fact, the filibuster has garnered much more attention than usual. My contributors and I have spent a lot of time making sense of this frustration with congressional procedure over the past Congress (herehere, and here). It was a noticeable component of this Congress’s troubles and as such, it was mentioned several times via media outlets, Senate committee hearings, and politicians (i.e. Joe Biden, Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and recently in his interview with John Stewart, President Obama, just to name a few). Stalling tactics in Congress have been so pervasive over the past year, they have bled into public opinion. Jonathan Chait and Jon Bernstein point out that Republican opposition has had an effect on individuals’ perceptions of Democrats’ legislative productivity (Here is a recent Gallup poll. 3 out of 4 Americans believe this Congress has not done more than usual). In short, most people think this is an inefficient Congress. As Bernstein points out, liberal "opinion leaders" have undermined Democrats credibility. By continually framing Republicans as the "party of no," the media has led people to believe this past Congress was inefficient. It was repeated so often, they translated Republicans' opposition into legislative inefficiency. While this belief is off the mark, it wouldn't be possible without increased attention to opposition politics.

The reason frustration/attention hasn’t translated into reform is not because it lacks attention. As mentioned before, it's received plenty. The filibuster remains unchanged because 1) despite increased attention, it still isn’t enough; and 2) this Congress lacked a critical moment or opportunity to reform Senate rules. In other words, the filibuster is frustrating to the majority but Democrats still accomplished plenty.

Congressional reform is not a short-term process. Major reforms, such as a change to filibuster/cloture, develop over multiple Congresses, not one or two. The last reform to the filibuster was in 1975. It may have appeared to be a short burst of action that all of the sudden changed Senate debate, but it wasn’t. At the beginning of every Congress since 1953 reformers introduced a motion to reform the filibuster (I discuss the “constitutional option” here). There are instances stretching back to 1949 where politicians attempted to alter cloture. So what seems like a momentary change was really a culmination 22+ years. What made the reform seem sudden was the fact that it occurred during a time of high institutional turmoil. Several political scandals (Watergate, several congressional scandals i.e. Wilber Mills (D-AR). Julian Zelizer has a great book on this), the partisan composition of the chamber, among other things, created an opportunity for multiple congressional reforms. This is in stark contrast to the this decade. The 111th Congress is really only the second legitimate effort in ten year to change the cloture rule.

The slow-moving nature of filibuster reform is characteristic of major institutional changes more generally. To the left is part of a graph from my dissertation. It charts the number of salient efforts to reform Congress over 1948-2008 (coded from the Washington Post). The vertical lines are major reforms to Congress (from Schickler 2000, 2001). The horizontal line is the percentage of reform articles to total articles on Congress during that year (It's very low. The top of the graph represents 2% of all congressional coverage in the Post. Apologies for the missing y-axis). As the graph illustrates, major reforms in the post-war era occur during upswings in attention to reform. However, they also often occur at the tail end of increased attention to congressional reform. Major reforms are most likely to occur after a crisis (e.g. scandal) or when frustration with the process has reached a critical mass (e.g. 1995 reforms). Without getting into too many details, major congressional reforms are long-term movements. They erupt into major reform eras when reform momentum meets opportunity. The 1970s (i.e. the last time the filibuster was reformed) are a perfect example of that.

It will take longer than a year or two to gather traction. Klein’s point that more attention is needed to change Senate procedure is well taken. We also need to understand that reform doesn’t occur overnight. It’s more likely to occur over 5-10 years, maybe more. This past Congress lacked that critical moment where congressional procedure was the scapegoat of our major problems. So kudos to Klein for bringing attention to the filibuster. But reforming it will need more consistent attention over a longer time.