Ron Johnson's lazy obstruction exposes the reality of the filibuster
The Democrats' pandemic relief package is slowly working its way through the Senate. That's no thanks to Republicans, who are uniformly opposed to any policy that would help working Americans and could be seen as a victory for President Biden and his party. By vowing to filibuster any package, they've forced Democrats to use the Senate's reconciliation process, which constrains the measures that can be included.
On Thursday, they took their obstruction to a new level of petty. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) announced he was going to try to gum up the procedure by forcing the entire monster bill to be read aloud. But then, when that was finished and all the exhausted Republicans had left, Democrats quickly gaveled through a change to the rules. The result was the bill actually moved through the Senate procedures somewhat faster on net.
It's an instructive example for moderate Senate Democrats like Joe Manchin (W.Va.) who refuse to eliminate the filibuster (as they should do). If they aren't willing to throw out the Senate's pointless rules completely, they can at least change them to require actual effort on the part of the obstructive minority — which plainly will not always be forthcoming.
Here's what happened. Johnson's political stunt exploited a Senate rule that states all bills under consideration are supposed to be read aloud, which is presumably intended to inform senators of what they are doing. That reading almost never happens today, because most modern bills are very long, and because no actual debate of any kind ever happens on the Senate floor anymore — it's just a hurdle for legislation that has been worked out previously by party leaders and various committees.
But as Alex Pareene details at The New Republic, because the Senate usually relies on unanimous consent to skip these procedural hangups, any one jerk senator can raise an objection and force the Senate clerks to pointlessly follow the old rule. "What these strategies rely on, almost uniformly, is a willingness to abuse rules that were not intended to allow a minority to block everything but that now serve only that purpose," he writes. The only point of Johnson's move was to stall before the clock started ticking on the bill's allotted debate time, generally drawing out the process while giving him some free airtime on right-wing media and giving Republicans and moderates more chances to potentially throw a wrench in negotiations.
However, when the bill reading was done at 2 a.m. Friday morning, and all the Republicans had gotten tired and gone home, there were still a few Democrats left on the floor. Senator Chris van Hollen (D-Md.) quickly suggested a motion to slash the amount of time for debate on the bill from 20 hours to three hours, which passed immediately since there was no one to object. The result was the next procedural step before passage (voting on a whole bunch of amendments) started Friday morning, instead of in the middle of the following night.
That brings me to the filibuster, which is often misunderstood. It does not take 40 senators to mount a filibuster — it only takes one senate staffer to reply to an email. If that happens, it then takes 60 votes on the floor and a ton of time to move the bill forward. This literally one-click filibuster is the biggest reason why virtually every Senate bill is filibustered these days, which has created all manner of toxic political side effects.
To be clear, the pandemic relief bill is going through the reconciliation process, which can't be filibustered. What Johnson's stunt shows is that if it were much more costly in time and effort to mount a filibuster, they would not happen nearly so often. Senators are, as a rule, lazy, easily bored, and tend to like getting out of D.C. as often as possible. Many are also very old.
For instance, if we changed the filibuster to the way people tend to assume it works, and required 40 senators to be present on the Senate floor at all times to carry one out (as suggested by Norman Ornstein at The Washington Post), it would instantly become incredibly burdensome for the obstructive minority. Republicans only have 50 votes, so four-fifths of their caucus would have to be present around the clock — requiring careful coordination of even bathroom breaks, and basically ruling out trips back home. The Republican caucus could not realistically keep that up for more than a few days, and likely would try it only occasionally. If Johnson couldn't stay up past 2 a.m. on one night to make sure Democrats didn't sneak something through, he's likely not ready to do that for weeks straight.
There are other ways of reforming the filibuster, but this 40-vote standard might be the one that appeals most to people like Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Both have advanced completely preposterous arguments that the filibuster was designed to encourage debate and compromise. "I believe the Senate has a responsibility to put politics aside and fully consider, debate, and reach compromise on legislative issues that will affect all Americans," wrote Sinema in an email to Arizonans defending her stance. "Our job is to find common and cooling ground, if you will, to make something work that makes sense," Manchin has said.
As we've seen, the one-click filibuster does nothing of the sort — it shuts down debate and halts compromise. But the 40-vote standard might just encourage some real arguments in those round-the-clock sessions. At the least, it would put an intense political spotlight on whatever was being filibustered. It would naturally attract a ton of media attention, and add pressure to Republicans to justify blocking whatever super-popular thing they were holding up. As Eric Levitz argues at New York, the logical candidate to put up after this pandemic bill would be HR1 (or the For the People Act), a sweeping expansion of voting rights passed by the Democratic House that would ban partisan gerrymandering, streamline voter registration, regulate money in politics, and much more.
So if we can't get rid of the filibuster altogether, how about changing it to make it work something like the movie cliches? If Ron Johnson and the rest of his party want to block overwhelmingly popular legislation, they should at least have to pull some all-nighters to do so.