Filibuster Follies: Mitch McConnell’s Flawed Argument

You think McConnell’s licked? Well…yeah, actually he’s kinda licked.

Mitch McConnell is not happy about the prospect of filibuster reform. Not one bit.

But his fire and brimstone-laden floor speech yesterday features a basic inconsistency that dooms his mission.

The filibuster, the procedural safeguard of the minority party that allows a collection of merely 40 of the 100 Senators to prevent a bill from even receiving a floor vote, is under attack. Harry Reid is threatening to introduce a filibuster reform measure when the Senate reconvenes in January to curb what he sees as McConnell’s rampant abuse of the filibuster to block Democratic legislation — citing the 385 filibusters Reid has faced as an anomaly compared to the 1 filibuster Lyndon Johnson dealt with while serving in the same role.

Basically, the most likely proposal to go to the floor is a rule that would require filibustering Senators to physically stand in the Senate and keep talking.  Raise your hand if you thought that was already the rule. If your hand is up, you’re not alone. It’s certainly the popular conception of a filibuster from movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It used to be reality too. Strom Thurmond held court for over 24 hours during a filibuster. But now the process of actually speaking can be avoided because a filibuster can be achieved by merely telling Harry Reid, “you need 60 votes or else I might start talking.”

In a floor speech yesterday, McConnell railed against the proposed reform:

Let’s be clear: The rules change that’s being proposed is not an affront to me or to the Republican Party. It’s an affront to the American people. It’s an affront to the people who sent me and the other 46 Republicans here to represent them in the Senate, but whose voices would be shut out if the majority leader and this cohort of short-sighted Senate sophomores have their way and permanently change this body.

The fundamental problem for McConnell is that persuasion requires the speaker to find a common premise with the audience. You can ultimately disagree with the argument, but the basic premise has to ring true for there to be any value to having the argument. It’s why political candidates ground their claims in basic values like “love of country,” because they start from a place where everyone can agree. You can even create false premises, like convincing America that Social Security is about to go bankrupt. There’s no truth to it, but most people of both parties accept that as true, and politicians can argue from that shared premise.

When the American people mostly believe the filibuster requires a Senator to talk for hours on end already, it’s hard to persuade anyone that reform will cause doom and gloom. What’s worse, McConnell cannot create a false premise out of this because the whole appeal of rhetoric like, “whose voices would be shut out” requires playing upon the audience’s sympathy for voices like poor Jefferson Smith heroically talking for hours. Basically McConnell is warning America that his voice might be drowned out by a rule that…forces him to talk?

See how this is a huge bind for McConnell?

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