Monday, December 21, 2009


I'll try to keep this brief, so you can return to what you were doing.

The healthcare debate has gotten me thinking about the Filibuster (I'm not alone). The need for 60 votes had two nasty effects on this bill:
1) it ended up being less progressive than I would have liked.
2) the final negotiations resulted in provisions amounting to thinly veiled bribery

problem 1:
It sucks, in this case, that the legislation was more centrist than I would have liked. But at some (not very deep) level, I'm grateful that legislation is moderated when "my" party is out of power.
I really appreciate that budget bills aren't subject to the filibuster and can be pushed through by a simple majority. Take that, California. I also like that judicial appointments require the greater bipartisanship forced (in theory) by filibuster. Should there be other levels? Is the bar too high? I'm not at a place to answer that. But I can say that "Problem 1" may be a strength, not a weakness. Bummer in this case, but better than the alternative.

Problem 2:
Onto the more interesting problem, the pseudo-bribes needed to sway Democrats on the cusp. I don't see this is a fault of the filibuster system, but just a tragedy of circumstance.

Why did Baucus, Lieberman, and Nelson have so much sway? It's not just that they were votes 58, 59, and 60, but that vote 61 (Snowe?) was so far away. I found a couple of interest breakdowns of voting records:

In both, there's virtually no overlap between the parties. But that obscures the even deeper divide when caucuses are as unified as they were for this vote. So Nelson's bargaining power was a result of the fluke that 60 votes were required, and that there was no close alternative for vote 60.

It reminds of semi-conductors. If there are a lot of electrons that can be freed near an energy level, the material behaves like a conductor near that energy. The current is very responsive to small changes in voltage. If there are no electrons with a binding energy near the applied voltage, you get a resister, which is completely unresponsive to changes in voltage. Only when there's an energy gap between one electron's binding energy and the next closest, do you get the semi-conductor properties that give us computers & TVs and cellphones and all other good things.

In the senate, a semi-conductive state is immensely destructive, because it gives a single senator, or small group of senators, disproportionate power over the content of the bill, allowing him/her/them to tweak it to benefit their state to the detriment of all others. But that's not the filibuster's fault. If the democrats had a 55 or 65 member caucus, we wouldn't have this problem-- since the difference between voter 55 & 56, or 65 & 66 is small, giving voter 55 minimal leverage. Likewise, if a simple majority were needed, but there 51 democrats, we'd be stuck in the same position.

In sum, Senate's got 99 problems, but a filibuster ain't one.

Back to work!

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