Politics vs. Procedure

by Brien Jackson

Ryan Grim reports on an odd quirk that renders the “make them talk” fantasies of conducting filibusters, seemingly, irrelevant:

To get an idea of what the scene would look like on the Senate floor if Democrats tried to force Republicans to talk out a filibuster, turn on C-SPAN on any given Saturday. Hear the classical music? See the blue carpet behind the “Quorum Call” logo? That would be the resulting scene if Democrats forced a filibuster and the GOP chose not to play along.

As both Reid’s memo and Dove explain, only one Republican would need to monitor the Senate floor. If the majority party tried to move to a vote, he could simply say, “I suggest the absence of a quorum.”

Brian Beutler is a little bit skeptical:

I’ve never been a Senate parliamentarian, so take this skeptically if you’d like, but here’s what the Congressional Research Service says about the “live” quorum call:

Generally, once a quorum is established as a result of a rollcall vote or a live quorum call, the Senate must transact some business before another quorum call is in order.13 However, if the Senate dispenses with a quorum call by unanimous consent before it is completed, a Senator again may suggest the absence of a quorum without business having intervened.


Excited yet? That “13” refers to pages 1042-1046 of the behemoth manual of Senate procedure, which contains a list of actions that, via precedent, define official Senate business. That doesn’t necessarily fly in the face of Ryan’s conclusion that members of the obstructing party would never have to turn to phone books or encyclopedias to keep their filibuster going, but it certainly appears that there’d be more of an onus on them than noting the absence of a quorum over and over again.

As the blogosphere’s Official Filibuster Defender(tm), let me say that I think this sort of misses the point. From a procedural standpoint, as Hilzoy and other have noted, it’s incredibly easy to maintain a filibuster. You just need one member of the minority to hold the floor, and other members of the minority can help the process along by asking questions that can go on for an unlimited amount of time. If you have a dedicated group effort, in other words, you can just hand off the baton endlessly between speaker and questioners, unless the votes are present for cloture. That, as I understand it, is the situation in which one Senator must ramble on incessantly without so much as a bathroom break, because you can not interrupt a speaking Senator to call for a cloture vote, but in the event the Senator yields the floor, you can call for cloture and end debate. But with a dedicated minority of 41+ members, none of this would really matter. Even in the event that the speaking Senator yielded the floor, the majority could call for a motion on cloture, which would then fail.

With all of that in mind, the real point behind “make them talk” isn’t a procedural one so much as a political one. The idea being that if the minority is going to filibuster a proposal, they ought to have to do it in front of the public, on camera, looking somewhat ridiculous for the cause. That is, I think, a pretty good idea that creates political trouble for a minority filibustering a popular proposal. And the idea is that if the minority actually had to behave ridiculously on the C-Span camera, that it would change the calculation around using the filibuster to make it more costly to block genuinely popular legislation. And even if that just entails a Republican calling for a quorum call over and over, I think the effect is achieved.