They Deserve an Up-or-Down Vote

04/10/2013 08:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

Democrats seem to be showing slightly more enthusiasm these days for attacking the endless filibustering in the Senate by Republicans. If this truly is the beginning of a trend, it would be notable, but it's too early so far to say that it's going to gain political traction or not. We're still waiting for the votes to be counted, to put this another way. But while the glimmerings seen recently from Democrats may not be sustained, it's still worth pointing them out, if only to encourage such behavior among the party at large.

Republicans, except for a brief two-month period when Democrats held a 60-seat advantage (right before the death of Ted Kennedy), have been filibustering with abandon, ever since they lost control of the Senate. They've been able to do so for one reason and one reason alone -- they have not had to pay a political price for doing so. The media has been lulled into a screaming inaccuracy (countless stories run with some form of the untruth: "the Senate requires 60 votes to pass a bill"), which has taken almost all the pressure off Republicans to justify their actions. Democrats have mostly gone along with this as well, except for the occasional "Tsk! Tsk!' from Harry Reid, and except for more-liberal Senate Democrats who never get quoted in the mainstream media.

Perhaps this is changing. At the forefront of this change is President Obama. On gun control legislation, Obama chose his rhetoric carefully, starting with his State Of The Union speech. Obama called loudly for just "a vote," and then tried to shame the Senate into allowing that to happen with the repeated refrain: "They deserve a vote!" By doing this, he was actually setting the legislative bar pretty low (he wasn't demanding passage of a law, after all, just "a vote"), but he has stuck to this idea with tenacity -- even in the face of the "Washington chattering class" pronouncing itself tired of the whole gun control debate, a few weeks back. The groupthink inside the Beltway had all but come to the conclusion: "The public doesn't care about gun control any more, so Obama's legislation is dead and buried, let's just move on to more fun subjects, shall we?" Obama refused to let it drop, though, and kept hammering away at the issue in public. Central to his argument was the "they deserve a vote" idea.

This is fairly good politics, and so far seems to be shaming a few Republicans into at least allowing a debate on the issue, on the Senate floor. John McCain, last Sunday, asked his own party "What are we afraid of?" and went on to strongly support the Senate actually having the debate -- because, as he pointed out, that's what elected representatives are actually supposed to do.

The "they deserve a vote" slogan is a good one, politically. It's got incredible moral weight behind it, because the "they" being referred to are the parents of dead children. It's pretty hard to find a more sympathetic group of people, to put this another way. These grieving parents deserve to see how America's elected officials vote -- yea or nay -- on such an important issue.

Because the phrase is short (and contains a pronoun), it will be easy to use in other situations as well. The "they" may change, but the sentiment does not. DREAM Act kids? They deserve a vote. Judicial nominees? They deserve a vote. As long as the "they" being referenced are sympathetic to the vast majority of the American public, then the logic works. The more the phrase is used, the more it points out that "they" (whomever they happen to be) are currently not getting a vote -- because they're being filibustered.

The only way this phrase could be improved is if it were tied to another modern political slogan. They don't just deserve a vote, they deserve an up-or-down vote. This may seem a bit redundant, but not everyone is equally politically savvy. It nails down both what is being asked, and the problem being complained about. "They deserve an up-or-down vote" further defines the idea that the Republicans are gumming up the works in Washington by filibustering everything under the sun. The recent "talking filibuster" by Rand Paul actually reinforces this idea as well -- because that is what a filibuster is supposed to look like, to everyone who's ever seen Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Rand Paul spoke with righteousness on an issue he felt strongly about, but it'd be hard to see Republicans speaking as strongly on camera about why they're filibustering (say) the appointment of someone to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Since talking of Rand Paul brings up the subject of the Tea Party and Libertarians, Democrats should reach out to them, as well, where they're vulnerable. It'd be pretty easy to do, just speak their language:

"Can any one of those proud Republicans who carry around a copy of the United States Constitution in their pocket please show me where in this document the term 'filibuster' appears? The framers of the Constitution were quite specific about supermajorities in the Senate, and they spelled out exactly when they are required: to propose a constitutional amendment, to overturn a presidential legislative veto, to convict in impeachment proceedings, and to ratify a treaty. For each of these, the Constitution mandates a higher threshold than a simple majority. What this shows is that the framers considered the actions of the Senate, and decided upon how many votes each and every item would take. But nowhere in the Constitution does it state that any higher than a simple majority of the Senate is required to pass laws or confirm presidential appointments. In fact, this was one of the problems in the Articles of Confederation that they were trying to fix at the time. So how can any Republican who swears by the doctrine of 'original intent' or 'strict construction' justify filibusters that the framers rejected? Honestly, what do you think James Madison -- the 'Father of the Constitution' -- would have had to say about the filibuster?"

Tea Partiers, in particular, would be hard-pressed to answer any of that.

In the midst of all of this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been threatening to change Senate rules to reform the filibuster. Nobody, however, takes him seriously. After all, he's had a number of chances to do so, but he always wimps out when it comes time to act. He seems to love complaining about his own failure to act later on, but each time he has an opportunity to do something, he doesn't. Not only does nobody believe any sort of timid threat from Reid now, but it must actually be a source of great amusement, behind closed doors, when Republicans put their feet up.

Assuming Harry is never going to act (a pretty safe assumption, at this point), the only possible way to change Republican behavior over the next few years is to use public shaming techniques. Make them pay a political price each time they use the filibuster. Barack Obama has been doing a pretty good job, in the past few weeks, of achieving this goal. He's even got John McCain backing him up, against his own party. Once the gun control issue does get a vote on the Senate floor, the public debate is going to shift to immigration. This is where Democrats should use the same exact technique to bring all the pressure they can bear on Republicans both in the Senate (to stop filibusters) and in the House (to convince John Boehner to allow a House vote). "They deserve an up-or-down vote!" should be echoed by every Democrat on each and every contentious issue for the next few months. Failing to make Republicans pay a political price for filibustering only encourages continued abuse. Since Reid's not going to do anything, the only way to even slightly change the dynamic is to put a giant public spotlight on each and every filibuster Republicans attempt. Ask the simple questions: "What are you afraid of? Why not have the debate America deserves on the issue?"

If all else fails, pull the etymology tool out of the toolbox: "You know, the word 'filibuster' actually comes from the Spanish for 'pirate' -- which isn't really a surprise, considering the Republicans' 'take no prisoners' attitude towards its use these days."


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