The Politics Of Process: The White House Embraces Senate Procedural Issues

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In political journalism, process stories are said to be bad. They are too inside baseball. They track only incremental movement. They are technical and complex. Readers have better things to do. They care about what happened, not how it is happening (or why it is not happening). They want to know about results. (For what its worth, as the author of many a process story, I don’t always agree.)

But there is a corollary in politics. Voters, it is said, care about what you can do for them, and what the other guy is doing for them. With the exception of politics junkies, partisans and ideologues–a relative minority of Americans–most folks don’t much care about cloture votes or reconciliation strategies. So, we must ask, why are the White House and its Democratic allies moving to make beating back the filibuster a campaign issue?

Luckily, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has already asked and, perhaps, answered the question. Complicating things further, Cillizza points out that filibuster reform is not even really popular: the filibuster remains favored by 56 of the American people, according to a recent CNN poll. So what is going on? Cillizza posits two possible answers.

The first is that the White House believes that the filibuster can be used as symbolic image for why the government (still) isn’t working and why it’s Republicans fault. . . . The second theory on the focus on the filibuster is that it is a play to energize what has been, of late, a very listless Democratic base.

Read his entire column here.

A couple more points: The issue of filibusters gets to the heart of an ideological divide in this country. Baroque Senate rules make it harder to get stuff done, which some people who oppose active governance think is good. If you got rid of the rules, or returned to a previous time when the whole process worked better, you would get more active government, which other people think is good. Today, Paul Krugman makes the case for why a more active government is needed.

Secondly, the best practical way to change the Senate rules is to do so from a position of weakness. Democrats like the filibuster when they are in the minority and right-wing judges are getting nominated to the federal bench. Republicans like it now, when Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House, and legislative inaction only strengthens the GOP hand for November. It is much easier to call for reform–which would make the minority less powerful–when one is in the majority, but much harder to accomplish with any bipartisan support. The real test will be whether or not Democrats still want reforms to the rules when they lose control of the Senate.