Public Doesn’t Care About Filibusters

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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.

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