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Political Impact Of Filibuster Changes Will Be Minimal To Non-Existent

Filibuster

As expected, yesterday’s events in the Senate that scaled back the ability of a Senate minority to filibuster Presidential nominees and judicial nominations other than the Supreme Court have been nearly the only topic of discussion among the talking heads on cable news both last night and this morning. On both sides, there are either pronouncements of how this move was either a parliamentary change made necessary by Republican intransigence, or a disastrous fundamental change to the  nature of how the Senate operates that will have long term implications going forward. Sprinkled in with that, of course, there are the obligatory references to the fact that eight years ago the tables were completely reversed on this issues, with Democrats like Harry ReidJoe Biden, and Barack Obama arguing that the threat of the GOP’s use of the nuclear option due to similar circumstances regarding the blockading of judicial nominations, while Republicans like Mitch McConnell were arguing why it was necessary to reform the filibuster rules when it came to judicial nominees.

For Washington and most political pundits, this is quite obvious a big deal, and there’s no denying that it is a change in the rules of the Senate that could have serious implications going forward. However, as Chris Cillizza points out, it’s unlikely to have a very big political impact in favor of either Republicans or Democrats. For starters, Cillizza points to a 2010 Pew poll that shows that only 26% of those asked knew that it took 60 votes to break a filibuster and that 37% answered that they didn’t know at all rather than guessing. Similarly, a 2011 Pew Poll, conducted a poll on the filibuster in the middle of the Democratic majorities efforts at the start of the new Senate session to enact some kind of filibuster reform, and the poll found that very few people knew or cared about the issue, and that other polling has shown that most Americans don’t hold very strong or consistent opinions on the issue:

In January 2011, the most recent time Pew Research asked people how much they’d heard about proposals by the Senate’s Democratic leadership to change the filibuster rule, nearly half (49%) said they hadn’t heard anything at all; more than a third (36%) said they’d heard only a little bit. That was down considerably from March 2010, when at the height of debate about the Affordable Care Act — and Republican threats to filibuster the healthcare-reform legislation — fully a third of Americans told an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that they’d heard “a lot” about filibustering, and another 26% said they’d heard “some” about it.

(…)

When people are asked directly whether they support or oppose filibusters, their answers haven’t been consistent. For example, a Quinnipiac University poll from March 2010mound 51% saying eliminating the filibuster would be a bad idea, versus 39% saying it would be a good idea). But in January 2011, in another Quinnipiac poll, support for the filibuster had narrowed, with 42% saying ending it would be a good idea and 45% calling it a bad idea.

This leads Cillizza and Sullivan to make the following observation:

All of the above is not to say that no one cares or knows about the filibuster — particularly as it relates to judicial nominees. The bases of both parties are heavily invested in it and, for them, Thursday was a big day. Harry Reid became a liberal hero for being the one who finally pushed the button; he became a conservative villain for being the one who finally pushed the button. In a midterm election where motivating your base is critical, the nuclear option could matter — except that the energy it creates in both bases is likely to cancel itself out.

But, in terms of the on-again, off-again voter who tends to decide elections — the issue is simply not one that animates or, to be frank, interests them in any meaningful way. So, yes, Thursday’s vote will almost certainly forever change the way the Senate and, by extension, political Washington works. But, if you think that the average person is following the happenings in Washington and/or is at all affected by them you’d be wrong.

Based on all the available evidence, Cillizza and Sullivan are basically correct here. For all the hand wringing or celebrating going on among the Beltway types and the pundit class about yesterday’s moves in the Senate, the odds that it is going to play a significant role in the 2014 elections, or any other part of electoral politics strike me as being exceedingly small. For one thing, outside of those people and the political junkies who follow developments like this closely on cable, in the blogsphere and elsewhere online, and on Twitter and Facebook, it’s unlikely that most Americans pay regular enough attention to what’s going on at this level of detail. To the extent that they do, it doesn’t seem that most people care about minutiae of Senate rules and procedures. Instead, the issues that are going to matter to them in 2014 are the same ones that mattered to them in 2010, 2012, and countless elections beforehand, namely the economy, jobs, and, mostly likely, the state of health care reform and how the PPACA has impacted them directly.  You’re quite simply not going to see any campaign commercials referencing filibuster reform, or hear it mentioned very much in campaign stump speeches.

As with any other issue that tends to excite the political chattering classes, it’s worth keeping in mind that the average American doesn’t necessarily care about what is considered “big news” inside the beltway.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. legion says:

    For Washington and most political pundits, this is quite obvious a big deal… However, as Chris Cillizza points out, it’s unlikely to have a very big political impact in favor of either Republicans or Democrats.

    Correct. This will not bear on the mind of the average voter one whit, either now or next November. It is a pure no-lose scenario for Reid and the Dems. I’ve seen opinions suggesting that McConnell deliberately provoked this by reneging on his agreement to stop obstructing nominees, but the chance the Repubs really do take control of both houses of Congress next year seems a pretty slim thread to hang a strategy like that on…

    Harry Reid became a liberal hero for being the one who finally pushed the button; he became a conservative villain for being the one who finally pushed the button.

    In other words, not one single thing changed, politically.

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  2. Ron Beasley says:

    I agree, the political impact will be minimal and it may actually help energize the Democratic base a little more than they would have been.
    A more important thing is it will radically alter the way the Senate works and since the Senate had become dysfunctional I really don’t see this as a bad thing. The country and the Senate are not the country and the Senate of 200 years ago. About 10% of the population has 40 votes in the Senate and the filibuster simply exacerbates this problem. It was time for a change.

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  3. michael reynolds says:

    I can’t wait to see the GOP run on a pro-gridlock position. Voters just love the idea that they pay the salaries of people who make it their business to accomplish nothing.

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  4. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I can’t wait to see the GOP run on a pro-gridlock position. Voters just love the idea that they pay the salaries of people who make it their business to accomplish nothing.

    Michael – You say that like that is a flaw. For the GOP for what now seems to be decades, this is a feature.

    If we look at the platforms of many of the GOP, it is intentional to take a stunning and stupid step back to an America that only existed in their imaginations.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Voters just love the idea that they pay the salaries of people who make it their business to accomplish nothing.

    For GOP voters, that is a job requirement.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Liberal Capitalist says:

    HOWEVER… (and to get back on topic)

    I believe that the psychological change that will be effected by this modification of the filibuster rules for appointments will be this:

    Once DEM legislators see that it took the stupid out of the appointment process, they will be less afraid to bring up the idea of eliminating / modifying the Filibuster rules for the legislative processes.

    Imagine: Senators and Congressmen actually VOTING to express the wishes of their constituents!

    We can only hope.

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  7. Latino_in_Boston says:

    This is what I love about this move. This is a huge move in terms of policy, at very little political cost. It is a genuinely game changing strategy that will pave the way to the eschewing of the filibuster altogether.

    What was so frustrating about the filibuster is that the Republicans could block everything and no one except for very hardcore political junkies even knew what was going on. Now, they will no longer have that weapon, at least for the courts and the administration.

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  8. C. Clavin says:

    Doug…
    Your record on these predictions is something less than abysmal.
    Maybe you should just stay away from them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. grumpy realist says:

    I think a lot of lawyers have been made happy. We never did understand why the Republicans were holding up the appointment of good judges to legal positions. It’s especially silly when you have candidates that the bipartisan organization of the ABA says are highly qualified.

    It’s sort of like saying you’re not going to hire a fantastic brain surgeon at your hospital.

    Politicians can screech as much as they want at each other–but please, let the ordinary legal system of the US carry on its duties.

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  10. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I agree that there will be little political impact from this in terms of near-term elections. However, if it gets the nomination system gets working again, it could have a long-term impact on governance overall.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Rafer Janders says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    About 10% of the population has 40 votes in the Senate and the filibuster simply exacerbates this problem.

    And in reverse, about 33% of the population representing the five biggest states has only 10 votes in the Senate. There’s more than enough protection for the minority in the Senate without the filibuster on top of it.

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  12. Ron Beasley says:

    @Rafer Janders: RJ, thanks for doing the math on this, I got the 10-40 number from one of your comments on another post.

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  13. C. Clavin says:

    Who knows…but hopefully this will mean progress on…you know…policy.
    Things that have been held up by appointments and Court Ideology…like Climate Change and Banking Regulation.
    Assuming that Republicans blow up the Legislation Filibuster if they ever get control of the Senate…that could make eliminating SS and Medicare — two of their pet projects — easier for them…but they still won’t have a veto-proof majority for a long, long, long, long time.

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  14. al-Ameda says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    About 10% of the population has 40 votes in the Senate and the filibuster simply exacerbates this problem.

    @Rafer Janders:

    And in reverse, about 33% of the population representing the five biggest states has only 10 votes in the Senate. There’s more than enough protection for the minority in the Senate without the filibuster on top of it.

    Thank you both. Dead on.

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  15. jib10 says:

    @michael reynolds: I have already heard from Tea Party people who are happy with this because ‘it will make it harder for anything to get done’ in the Senate. So, 1) they love it when the gov is gridlocked, and 2) I have no idea WTF they are thinking just happened. I tried to explain that this will make it easier for the Senate to do things, not harder. That more will get done. I got blank stares back.

    Some where in the Tea Party communication network, the word is being passed around that this will make it harder for the Senate to do anything. Any one know where this is coming from?

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  16. Woody says:

    The GOP – as currently constituted – has calcified due to the success of the Rove-engineered “activating base” tactic (as opposed to the more traditional “enlarging voter pool” strategy).

    The activists, buoyed by media entities eager to increase market share via hype and fear, have demonstrated their effectiveness and resolve when it comes to punishing incumbent Republicans they find disloyal. This leaves many Congressional Republicans with no choice other than total obstruction. This is particularly true in a mid-year election cycle.

    The lousy part with this is that the GOP’s sole straw left is a crashing economy – and they’ve shown a true resolve to go to any length for their tactic to succeed.

    I’ll say it again: a failure to effectively govern affects real, actual human beings.

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  17. gVOR08 says:

    Yes. Republican strategy requires making “the government can’t do anything” a self fulfilling prophecy. This will make it harder for them, and in the long run will have a political impact.

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  18. SKI says:

    The one area that may have a political impact is allowing presidents to again have senate-confirmed executives “choose to spend more time with their families” when they have screwed up. Once again, heads can roll without leaving a critical department without a leader for months and months.

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  19. Tillman says:

    The court system had enough dysfunction without this nomination mishegoss at the top. God willing it can return to its ordinary dysfunction instead of the extraordinary kind.

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  20. mannning says:

    When changing a rule that has been in effect for over 200 years, one should wonder what side effects may emerge downstream that will take the rosy smiles off the liberal cheerleaders’ faces. The unintended consequences we discover later we may all regret. But, then, the closed-minded and myopic senators of today have not even begun to think seriously about the long-term consequences of their action. They legislate in haste, but will regret at their leasure.

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  21. An Interested Party says:

    When changing a rule that has been in effect for over 200 years…

    Except, of course, that the rule itself has been changed and modified over those 200 years, so the idea that this is the end of civilization as we know it is just a bunch of hot air…

    But, then, the closed-minded and myopic senators of today have not even begun to think seriously about the long-term consequences of their action.

    Indeed, the misuse of the filibuster as well as other methods used to gum up the works are quite close-minded and myopic…

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  22. mannning says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Precisely what one would expect from diehard libs: masking the truly odious action of their progressive representatives in the congress with defensive snark.

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  23. Tillman says:

    @mannning: You realize it’s been everywhere on the news that this is the first big change to Senate rules since 1975:

    The rules change is informally referred to as the “nuclear option” because it blows up long-standing Senate procedure and protection of minority rights. It is the most far-reaching change to filibuster rules since 1975, when senators eased the two-thirds requirement for ending filibusters to today’s three-fifths requirement of 60 votes.

    So calling this a change to a rule that’s been in place for 200 years is incredibly inaccurate.

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  24. mannning says:

    @Tillman:

    Well, well, well it was in fact only 38 years? Thank you for straightening that out. Still, it stinks to high heaven, and it will be regretted. Guaranteed!

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