Sunday, November 9, 2014

Who was obstructing whom in the Senate?

The Democrats have been saying since 2010 that the Republicans have been obstructing legislation with endless filibusters. The GOP has been charging the Dems won't talk with the GOP, won't let them offer amendments, and won't allow votes that the GOP would like to take.

Not a surprise, but both charges are true. However, a commenter (somewhere on the internet--it's not important where) suggested that it started with Harry Reid stopping amendments and other votes. If this is true, then Reid is responsible for a lot of dysfunction, in fact a cascade of dysfunction. So I decided to check this out.

It was quite hard to do. The accusation hasn't been generally raised and examined, so I didn't find a convenient summary of the issue. Instead, I found lots of tit-for-tat fighting. So here it is.

Yes, Harry Reid filled up the amendment lists on most or all bills. This pissed off the Republicans, who wanted to offer amendments that put Democratic senators on the spot. The GOP didn't get to do this, but they still managed to defeat lots of these senators in the midterm elections just last week. So, if we identify the goals, they are something like this:

  • GOP goal: Make Dem senators take embarrassing votes.
  • Dem goal: Protect Dem senators from embarrassing votes.
So, did the Republicans get angry at being stymied, and then start filibustering all nominations? I found one brief mention of the possibility in a Norm Ornstein piece. Mostly, the GOP wanted to make it hard for the Obama administration to appoint officials to carry out their policies. They particularly targeted the Consumer Finance Something Something and the National Labor Relations Board. And also the EPA. The GOP also wanted to restrict the number of judges appointed by Obama to appeals and circuit courts. [Disclosure: I'm not sure what the difference is between appeals and circuit courts, but that information isn't really relevant here.] Almost everything I read talked about the GOP's motivation not being revenge for blockage of amendments, but being attempts to slow or block.

The Dem senators threatened many time to end the filibuster on appointments (except Supreme Court nominees). The GOP backed down several times, then returned to the practice, and finally the Dems went nuclear and ended the rule that allowed the GOP to filibuster. In most of this, there wasn't public discussion/negotiation of what Harry Reid was doing with amendments. The usual GOP stance was that they had every right to exercise oversight of appointments, and they were making sure that inappropriate people weren't being appointed. This excuse was generally bullshit, and was understood this way at the time. To summarize:

  • GOP goals: Block the administration personnel and appointed judges. Revenge on Reid for when he blocked Bush nominees.
  • Dem goal: End the blockage, end the filibuster if necessary.
So I didn't find that Harry Reid's tactics were the ultimate cause of the appointment blockade. I did find lots of bad behavior spanning decades as each side tried to maximize its advantage, and also tried to avenge the history of insults. It's an ugly feud that only gotten uglier.



Tons of Extras. I checked a lot of conservative sources to read their rationale for the blockade of appointments. That explains the imbalance below.


  • The Dems have brought the law of the jungle to the Senate. When the GOP gets control, they should use it to the max.
  • Mark Levin against the blockade of judicial nominees, circa 2003: "Nowhere in the Constitution, in the Federalist Papers or in any contemporary writings during the Constitutional Convention or the ratifying conventions can the Senate Democrats find support for their use of the filibuster to block judicial appointments."
  • Weekly Standard against it too.
  • Yeah, it's revenge for Dems blocking Bush's judicial nominees.
  • The next set of obstruction tactics after the nuclear option was exercised.
  • Recent: Keep the nuclear option on judicial appointments. It's more in keeping with tradition anyway.



  • Reactions to the Dems going nuclear. Republican apoplexy: You're going to regret this.
  • Well-paced history of senators behaving badly for decades, tracing escalation through Frist and Reid. Discussion of the amazing number of maneuvers that can be abused. Blocking amendments--they both did it. Breaking agreements, ditto. I especially enjoyed pages 12-19.
  • How that amendment-blocking maneuver works.
  • Post-nuclear, but still blocked.


Anson Burlingame said...


I admire your research and am not surprised you could not find "summaries". Too many pundits on each side to summarize anything.

But there is one BIG number that counts in my view. There were some 300 (or so) bills passed by the House but never voted upon by the Senate over the last 4 years since the House went into GOP hands.

I wonder how many House bills we tabled in 2008 -2010 while Dems controlled the House?

BOTH sides will use all the parlimentary tricks available to minorities and scream when the other side returns the favor.

But this tactic used by Reid since 2010 is a new one in my book, tabling almost "everything", NEVER allowing a vote on bills coming from the House.

I am trying to remember when a divided Congress last did that at least to the extent seen by Reid.

That might be a simpler research quest.


Dangerous said...

Boy, Anson, that's an awfully one-sided view of the basis of not bringing up House bills. So often, the Dems would have the votes to pass comparable but different legislation in the Senate, but the GOP would filibuster THAT bill (which the House would not consider). If allowed a vote on the Senate bill which would pass, the two bills would have to go to conference committee, where the GOP obstruction would be obvious. The GOP didn't want that PR loss, so they demanded votes on the House bills they favored, to try to gain a PR victory.

You seem well informed, Anson, so I'm surprised that you would choose to view only part of the check board an not see the bigger picture vis-a-vis the tactics. Remember that when the Dems had control the GOP filibustered everything they could, completely ignoring the clear message from two elections in a row. They did so exclusively for political reasons and the Dems let them get away with it. which they correctly took as a sign of weakness. So they continued the tactic particularly after it worked in 2010.

There has clearly been an escalating tit-for-tat and the Dems participated in it as freely as the Republicans, but if you check the history it was always, always, always the GOP raising the stakes and forcing the Dems to react with the only means at their disposal. I'm sure there are Republicans who do not forget what the Dems did to Nixon, and have wanted to impeach or drive a Dem president from office ever since.

Don't forget that the GOP can and does play this game better because many more supporters of the Dems prefer compromise and many more GOP supporters want confrontation. Consider all the right-wing talkers and their audience sizes, and they aren't debating merits of policies. They are out for blood.

Anson Burlingame said...


I spend a lot of my online time reading liberal blogs, locally constructed in Joplin by and large. But I also read numerous liberal op-eds from national sources in our local paper. In other words I do my best to understand the liberal perspective, and engage with them when I disagree. I'm just getting started on this blog because I have great respect for Moderate Poli. We have been enchanging views for well over a year now, on my blog.

If you want an example of such engagements between me and MP go to I caution you that it is a LONG blog as the subject is very complex.

The last time the White House and Congress went head to head over an entire presidency,was Dems in Congress and Reagan in the WH. But our country made great progress in those years, ending the Cold War being a crowning achievement. But don't neglect the economic growth in those years, either. On big things Congress and WH found a way to move forward.

If one neglects impeachment Congress and the WH made great progress as well during the Clinton years with a divided Congress and WH.

Then the political world in America fell apart, in my view.

At least since the world truly turned on 9/11 it has been GOP vs Dems on almost every big issue. That divide has gotten worse and worse since then and American voters now switch parties in power in Congress as often a a prostitute pulls up her drawers (old military metaphor for "all the time").

Dems, riding on the concerns over Iraq (and then an economy crashing around our ears) got Obama and a strong majority Congress. That only lasted 2 short years.

Then by getting a larger "mass vote" Dems kept the WH. Now we see .......

The only solution coming from both sides is majority power in Congress (both Houses) and the WH for one side or the other.

Do you really believe that is the best solution, one party government in America. I don't for sure.

I want all the debate possible in Congress and tabling bills or filibustering does not achieve that. I want a unifying LEADER in the WH and could care less which party he represents.

And I want SCOTUS to keep the playing field legally level and "constitutional" as well. We of course can argue until the cows come home over that term, for sure!!


Dangerous said...

Anson, I will attempt to answer you point by point:

The economic record of the Reagan years is mixed, and if memory serves, the GOP controlled the Senate for at least part of that 8-year period. Some things got done, true, and the economy was better than under Carter with the skyrocketing cost of gas and shortages. The economic legacy of the Reagan years, however, is structural budget deficits as the GOP demanded and got massive tax cuts for the wealthy combined with massive increases in Defense Spending. The latter may have contributed to or hastened the fall of the Soviet Union, but only at a huge cost to the economy for a generation.

When Clinton took office, just barely in a 3-way race with low 40% of the popular vote, and Dems controlling Congress, they passed a reasonable tax increase to offset the exploding deficits under Reagan, and the Newt-led GOP handed them a shit sandwich to eat in the next election. Some progress was made during that divided government period, but it was on GOP terms mostly, with Clinton triangulating. Nevertheless, the GOP still calls Clinton a "liberal".

I agree that the Bush years, with the GOP in full control, set the country back in so many ways you can barely argue otherwise. But the Iraq war was a bi-partisan adventure to start -- with some Dems going along grudgingly and others with enthusiasm (or the calculated appearance thereof), but the GOP still campaigned on a bogus notion of strength vs. the Dems.

The big misplay by the Dems was not making the GOP sit on the sidelines for two years while they passed an agenda that may or may not have worked, but at least if it didn't they would take the blame for a failure they deserved. Instead, the GOP never gave the Dems a single vote in either side of Congress for any item of a watered-down agenda. This was a political strategy and effective at blame-shifting for the 2010 and 2014 elections, but not for 2012.

Do I believe one-party government is best? If one party is doctrinaire and the other is centrist, then yes. A reasonable GOP with ideas that could work for everyone in the country rather than just the wealthy would be a good thing. You'd get real debates and better policies. But this zero-sum game the GOP has decided to play is not good for the country. Everything is politicized all the time with no room for compromise.

I'd prefer at least one viable new party, which I think could happen soon based on the huge negative both parties receive. It will take a well-respected Dem and Rep to join forces to form it, with the funding of at least a few billionaires who want a legacy.

ModeratePoli said...

@dangerous, I think you made an excellent point that GOP senators, who would filibuster bills they didn't like, are hypocritical to complain that the Dems wouldn't allow votes on the favored bills. Good catch, as long as it's true. (There have been so many charges and countercharges, it's hard to know when you've gotten to the real story.)

I disagree with a few points in your second comment. I'm not at all sure that what passed in 2009 was a "watered down agenda." I think the Dems pursued as liberal an agenda was they could get away with in terms of votes. Dems needed the votes of blue dogs, so they couldn't go full-bore progressive (like single payer). They also played the game of labeling their work as more centrist than it was. For example, a big talking point was how much of the stimulus was tax relief, but the details show that they inflated the numbers. Why did they do that? Because they wanted the PR of seeming centrist.

Finally, are you really hoping for a third party? Quite frequently you've sounded like a 'take-no-prisoners' Dem supporter. Is this a change in your thinking? Agree that it would take funding by a billionaire. I would love it to happen.

Anson Burlingame said...

Moderate and Dangerous,

It seems when I get into substance with liberals I find "take no prisoners" Dems. I don't know Dangerous's background, but he sounds like the local liberal I have dealt with for years.

In the last 4 years Dems have "tabled" and GOPers have filibustered. A pox on both in my view, but filibustering has been around a lot longer than tabling as a political tactic by the MAJORITY for Christ's sake.

When a MAJORITY Senate ducks a vote on a law from a different MAJORITY in the House, well ......!!!

No longer wil we see tabling in the Senate, for at least two years and all will have to actually VOTE on things, not hide behind Harry Reid's skirts. That is really important in a basically red (sligthly) State with a Dem that wants to sound conservative but never votes that way when she has to vote!! Same could be said for a GOPer in a Blue state.

But the minority tactic of filibuster, well I don't call for eliminating it by either side.

Contrary to most, I LIKE two party government in America. God help us if either side gains and keeps the full Majority. Bring on minority protections in the Senate is my call, anytime.


Dangerous said...

Yes, the 2009 agenda was watered down, and no, I'm not your average local "liberal", but thanks for the prejudging.

The 2009 agenda was watered down to satisfy the blue dogs but not because the Dems didn't have the votes to pass the bills. They didn't have the votes to get over the filibuster since they do not have the same control of their caucus than the GOP has on theirs. So you get Ben Nelson in Nebraska getting a special provision only for Nebraska (later eliminated) just to get 60 votes to prevent him from joining the GOP to filibuster.

My argument is that they should have killed the filibuster or worked around it and get 50 votes for the legislation that they deserved to own, rather than the GOP-favored tax-cut approach. Most Dems knew that was less effective than, say, infrastructure spending or increased government employment and support to states and municipalities.

Anson, you remind me of someone who reads the boxscore and describes how the game was played based on it. The real story of the games are far more complex and nuanced, and unless you actually watched the game as it was unfolding. And you have to study the game films, too, to learn the real truth of who on the field did their jobs and who left someone else covering for them.

I remember the Reagan years, having graduated with an Ivy League degree in 1983 (in business, no less) and finding nothing but lousy jobs available for years. And I was hardly the only one. And I remember the shock of the October market crash.

And I remember how silly the boom of the Clinton years looked, with so many people throwing money at web site name properties, and good money chasing after bad. Amazon may be a force now, but will they ever make up the billions they lost in the early years? Amazon may make tons of money now, but ONLY because of acquisitions of companies already making profits.

Please point to one major success of the Bush II years, other than politics. In Obama's first two years, even with a watered-down healthcare law and compromise stimulus that only one party voted for, the country turned around and things got better. (HCR should have had the public option, NOT single-payer.) All the issues since then are GOP-inflicted either with political pressure -- and I admit the Dems are weaklings -- or outright obstruction.

And, BTW, I have a simple plan that would fix the dysfunction in Washington, although I'm sure you'd immediately pooh-pooh it since you didn't invent it and it sounds like you want to play the role of conventional wisdom enforcer. I know it would never happen because the politicians wouldn't want it, but the Vulcans would embrace it.

If your mind is open I'll share it and you're welcome to use it on your blog. But if you're stick in binary thinking, I won't waste my time.

ModeratePoli said...

@anson, it's way too early to declare that the GOP leadership won't "table" bills. We don't know what their behavior will be, or how much it might deteriorate over the session. Will the Dems get to vote on the things they want, or only the Repubs? No one knows yet, so we will see.

I sincerely hope that Harry Reid steps down. This shouldn't be a ritual head-rolling, but because his strategy failed his fellow senators in a fairly big way.

@dangerous, I disagree that the stimulus was too much of a compromise. Instead, most groups got their piece of the pie. I don't see that it would have been improved by having an even higher top-line number, or by giving more to Democratic constituencies. Perhaps the money should have been better allocated, but that might have meant a smaller piece for food stamps, the disabled, high-speed rail, or green energy tax credits.

Regarding ACA, I don't think the biggest problem is that we don't have a public option. The biggest problem is the limited variety of policies, and how much coverage they have to give. I seriously wonder whether it was wise to mandate lots of mental health coverage, rehab, no fee contraception, other no fee coverages, etc. I think it might have been better to start smaller, see how much it costs, and add on as the budget permits and as people strongly favor.