Public Doesn’t Care About Filibusters

Photo used under a Creatives Commons license by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/metal4rock/1196819338/"_blank">metal4rock</a>


Earlier this week, New Mexico senator Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat, introduced a resolution that, should it succeed, would set in motion a process that could lead to the elimination of the filibuster at the start of the 112th Congress next January. (If that sentence sounded unnecessarily clunky and complicated, well, welcome to the Senate.)

Udall’s resolution seeks to reverse the long-held notion known as the “continuing body” theory, which posits that Senate rules transfer from one Congress to the next, and thus can only be changed by a two-thirds vote (or, more likely, an act of God). “Continuing body” sounds like a great name for a New Age healing ritual, but it’s a really lousy way to run a government: as a result of the built-in impediments to reform, the Senate operates on a set of rules that only a handful of its members ever voted for. Instead, Udall contends that every Congress has the authority to set its own rules, under Article 1 Section 5 of the Constitution. He’s probably right.

The filibuster’s faults are self-evident, but that doesn’t make its elimination a winning political issue by any stretch. According to a new survey from Pew, only 26% of Americans know how many votes it takes to overrule a filibuster. (For a point of comparison, consider that 32% could identify Michael Steele as the chairman of the RNC). While Democrats have been effective in turning Steele into a political pincushion, a year’s worth of grousing about Senate procedure hasn’t made it into a hot-button issue.

Nor, for that matter, will another year’s worth of grousing have any effect, if history is any indication. At the peak of the filibuster debate in 2005, when Senate Republicans sought to change the rules to protect their electoral mandate, the public remained largely indifferent: 37% opposed the plan, 28% supported it, and 35% didn’t really know what to think. And despite a barage of advertisements in support of the “nuclear option” to end the filibuster, just 14% of respondents admitted to following the filibuster debate “very closely.” That was probably thanks to other more pressing issues like high gas prices, the war in Iraq, social security, the economy, and the search for a new Pope.

Democrats may be right to highlight Senate rules as an overarching obstacle to democracy. But that alone won’t make it a winning argument.

Follow Tim Murphy on Twitter.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate