How Calvin and Hobbes Explains the Senate Filibuster Fight

Calvin and HobbesCalvin and HobbesIf you want to understand the procedural fight over the filibuster that went down in the Senate over the last 24 hours, it helps if you first understand Calvinball.

For those poor deprived souls who have never read Bill Watterson’s classic newspaper comic Calvin and Hobbes, Calvinball is a made-up game played and invented by the two title characters. There are a slew of complicated rules associated with the game, most of which are arbitrary and some of which are utterly nutty, but the most important thing to know about the game is that any of the rules can be changed at any time, usually by any player, except perhaps when there are rules prohibiting some players from making those changes (although those rules can be changed or thrown out too, and games often end up with players making retaliatory rules designed to cancel out or complicate rules devised by other players).

It’s a game, in other words, with an awful lot of complex and arcane rules that tend to evolve over time and are generally determined by the players themselves—rules  that usually have to be obeyed, except when they don’t.

This is not an exact description of how the Senate works, but it’s close enough. And it’s a reasonably useful context in which to understand the most recent squabble over the filibuster.

Members of the Senate basically get to make up their own rules, and to change them at any time. So a rule that, for example, allows the minority party to block bills or nominations that fail to get 60 votes can always be altered with a simple majority. A rule—even a rule that effectively institutes a 60-vote supermajority requirement for action—is really only as strong as a simple majority of the Senate allows it to be. 

Calvinball wikiCalvinball wikiHence the most recent fight over “the nuclear option.” Senate Republicans have been relying on rules requiring supermajority support to proceed with voting to block legislation, judicial appointments, and a handful of presidential appointments. In response, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, after conferring with the rest of the Senate’s Democratic majority, threatened to go forward with a rules change that would have allowed presidential appointments to go through with only a majority vote. That’s the nuclear option: a big change to the filibuster rules that would almost certainly lead to a serious, and perhaps total, procedural war.

This is not an entirely unheard of threat from Reid. The nuclear option, or some version of it, has been in the background of Senate procedural fights throughout the Obama administration. Nor is it a threat that Republicans have abstained from making themselves. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell talked up the possibility of invoking the nuclear option against Democrats when the GOP was in the majority back in 2005.

There’s a bit of a new wrinkle this time around, which is that the legal status of some of the current crop of nominees is dubious at best. Richard Cordray, Obama’s pick to the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as two labor-friendly nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), were nominated while the Senate was in an intracession recess during a regular session—basically just a quick break. But President Obama used his recess appointment power to circumvent the Senate for their appointments. In cases focused on the NLRB appointments, two courts have ruled that recess appointments are only acceptable between sessions.

That’s most likely why the primary thing the GOP got out of today’s deal was a promise to take the current two NLRB nominees out of the running, replacing them with two other (presumably union-friendly) nominees yet to be determined. 

The other thing that the GOP got was that Sen. Reid declined to actually go for the nuclear option. But that’s not much of concession, since Reid refused to say that he would table the option permanently. He can always go nuclear at any point from now on, and more importantly, it seems more clear that, if provoked, he really will.

Going forward, this means that Republicans will have a somewhat more limited ability to use the filibuster than they have in the past, although it probably won’t expand to affect legislation or judicial nominees. It also means that Republicans can be expected to use the same sort of nuclear threat if and when they gain control of the Senate, a possibility that lately looks even more likely. And my guess is that eventually Republicans will inch further toward going nuclear than Democrats have—perhaps using the nuclear threat on blockaded judicial nominations as well.

What’s really shifted in the Senate is the credibility of the nuclear threat. But in some ways, very little has changed at all. As in Calvinball, the real rules are that there are no real rules, except the ones that most everyone agrees to play by.  

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  • John||

    I am not seeing why this is a big deal. It is not like the filibuster has kept many nuts out of government. And whatever rule Reid makes, he will have to live by when there is a Republican President and Senate majority.

    If it is a really high profile appointment and the appointee is a real fruit loop, there should be enough red state Dems who can be pressured into voting against it.

  • ||

    The big deal is that the filibuster has definitely prevented some bad bills from becoming law. If you remove the filibuster from nominations, it really becomes much more conceivable that it could be removed from regular bills as well.

    That would be VERY bad. I shudder to think of what might have become law at various times without it.

  • John||

    But the "nuclear option" would only affect appointments. No one, not even Reid, is talking about getting rid of the filibuster altogether.

  • robc||

    This time.

  • John||

    Okay so maybe it is somewhat important as a precedent. But it is still a meh.

  • ||

    It's about breaking the precedent. Today it's about the importance of the president getting up or down votes on nominations, but making this change makes it easier to have fight be about the importance of ____ legislation the next time.

    It's basically a step towards othering the filibuster.

  • John||

    Don't worry. The Democrats will stop othering it the moment the Republicans win the White House and or control of the Senate.

  • Sevo||

    I'm not seeing that as reassuring.

  • Hollywood||

    I think the administration is already anticipating Ginsburg's departure from the SCOTUS, whether it's voluntary or otherwise. They want this measure in place for that eventuality.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Interesting, seeing as how Ginsburg *wasn't* filibustered when Clinton nominated her, and Republicans actually voted for her. Not as if there were any warning signals like her working in the feminist-insanity division of the American Civil Liberties Union.

  • robc||

    The really big deal is direct election of Senators.

    Put election of Senators back in the hands of the state legislatures and the whole checks and balances thing changes dramatically.

  • Rich||

    I'll go you one better: Have the legislatures of states X and Y elect the senators of state Z.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    That would just mean the senators of state Z are really the senators of state X and Y.

  • ||

    More like: have states x and y vote or the state representatives of state z. Now THAT is an indirect election.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Actually, our current political system, not just the congressional rules, is quite like Calvinball. New rule, new rule--it's a tax, not a penalty!

  • Paul.||

    I feel that the game of WhackBat is underrepresented in the many analogies of complex rule-based systems.

  • Sevo||

    Pro Libertate| 7.16.13 @ 4:00PM |#
    "Actually, our current political system, not just the congressional rules, is quite like Calvinball. New rule, new rule--it's a tax, not a penalty!"

    Unless you were watching closely, it's 'way worse than that in CA.
    Re the 'hate the government, get more of it', the Dems pushed a re-districting initiative several years back; it was 'non-partisan'. Somehow, every one if the new CA districts ended up electing a Dem rep.
    Now the CA GOP is full of knuckle-draggers, but usually at least one ends up in Sacto. Well....

  • H. Protagonist||

    Dammit, McSuderman, the "most important thing to know" about Calvinball is that the only permanent rule is that you can't play it the same way twice.

  • robc||

    THIS.

  • Peter Suderman||

    What if I made a rule that the game had to be played the exact same way as last time? The idea that there's a permanent rule in a game where you make up the rules as you go strikes me as part of the joke.

  • Pro Libertate||

    You don't understand a man like Watterson. He's a warrior poet.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I actually tried to play Calvinball once. My sister only lasted about 5 minutes.

  • H. Protagonist||

    Ye gods, man, a temporary rule cannot modify or negate the permanent rule. What country do you think this is, Somalia?

  • robc||

    I dont think Suderman is familiar with Nomic. Clearly, "you cant play it the same way twice" is an immutable rule.

  • Sevo||

    Peter Suderman| 7.16.13 @ 4:16PM |#
    "What if I made a rule that the game had to be played the exact same way as last time? The idea that there's a permanent rule in a game where you make up the rules as you go strikes me as part of the joke."

    Yes it is. Very similar to our resident shithead claiming the filibuster is not 'natural' because it requires more than a majority, ignoring that it was instituted by a majority.

  • Dweebston||

    For those poor deprived souls who have never read Bill Watterson’s classic newspaper comic Calvin and Hobbes

    This is a bigger deal-breaker for me than a girl's politics. If she thinks of Calvin as "that pissing boy" on the back window of some asshole's truck, she's picking up her half of the tab.

  • Paul.||

    All this talk of nuclear options, and yet the Union of Concerned Scientists hasn't made a peep.

  • Rich||

    And what is the dirty bomb option, chopped liver?

  • Enough About Palin||

    I like the neutron bomb option. It takes out all of the senators, but leaves the senate building intact.

  • Rich||

    I like the stink bomb option.

  • Dweebston||

    That’s most likely why the primary thing the GOP got out of today’s deal was a promise to take the current two NLRB nominees out of the running, replacing them with two other (presumably union-friendly) nominees yet to be determined.

    Is this why Republicans are the stupid party and Democrats are evil?

  • Tony||

    Hmm, precedent. Precedent was broken when the filibuster became a routine matter instead of a rare political expression.

    The filibuster itself is a loophole in Senate rules, not a rule instituted for some purpose.

    The constitution obviously intended for the Senate to work on simple majorities for routine matters. The filibuster thus is also a de facto amendment to the constitutional order of our government.

    But precedence doesn't matter, because Republicans are not going to let Democrats' actions dictate their future behavior. Their outlandish abuse of the filibuster is itself evidence that if they want to go nuclear, they'll do it regardless. The only thing that prevented them from doing it in the Bush administration was the move being blocked by a bipartisan "gang."

    Dems should calculate the risk vs. reward of using the nuclear option, the reward being they get their people through, the risk being Republicans will piss their pants all over TV. One risk they shouldn't consider as real is the Republicans using their move as precedent. They obviously don't give a shit about precedent.

  • John||

    The only thing that prevented them from doing it in the Bush administration was the move being blocked by a bipartisan "gang."

    Or in other words the only thing that prevented it was the fact that not enough of them wanted to.

    And the risk is that when the Dems lose the Senate next year, they won't be able to filibuster and stop things like pesky investigations.

  • Tony||

    As I said, I don't think the current senate not implementing the N.O. will dictate a future Republican senate's behavior. There are indeed more elderly senators in both parties who do worry about ending filibusters because they might want to keep the power should they be in the minority.

    So yeah the only thing that's different about this time is that Reid claims to have the votes. That's how he won what he wanted, and the Republicans don't get to piss their pants now.

    Still, should the GOP take the senate, I expect all of the bulldozing of precedent and constant radical antigovernment bullshit we're seeing out of the House now.

  • John||

    And the Democrats never abused the filibuster. That is why Janice Rogers Brown is on the appellete court.

    In fairness, Democrats using the filibuster out of animus towards black people does have a lot of precedent. So maybe the Democrats do respect precedent more than Republicans.

  • Tony||

    As with most things, both parties are guilty, but Republicans are guilty to an absurd and heretofore unknown degree.

  • Sevo||

    Tony| 7.16.13 @ 4:32PM |#
    "As with most things, both parties are guilty, but Republicans are guilty to an absurd and heretofore unknown degree."

    When you have no argument, just make up stuff, right, shithead?

  • Nazdrakke||

    Shorter Tony: "The Rules should reflect whatever is best for the Democratic Party."

  • Tony||

    The Democratic party has a majority in the Senate and the White house. That would seem to be the natural order. Except it isn't, because the Senate is minority rule.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    The natural order is to have a supermajority.

  • Sevo||

    Tony| 7.16.13 @ 4:35PM |#
    ..."That would seem to be the natural order"

    I seem to recall you griping about 'natural rights', which at least have a shout-out in the DoI; where did you find "natural order", shithead?

  • Tony||

    Were you dropped on your head as a fetus?

  • Sevo||

    Tony| 7.16.13 @ 4:22PM |#
    "Hmm, precedent. Precedent was broken when the filibuster became a routine matter instead of a rare political expression."

    No, shithead, that was not "precedent", that was "practice".
    Do you think your lies won't be caught?

  • Adam330||

    "The constitution obviously intended for the Senate to work on simple majorities for routine matters."

    I missed this one in my last read-through of the constitution. Care to point me to it?

  • Rights-Minimalist Autocrat||

    It's there if you believe it hard enough.

  • Tony||

    Because that's how votes are usually done. It specifies supermajorities for certain purposes, so the assumption is obviously that it intended for simple majorities for routine matters. You should have to point out where in the constitution it says all matters require supermajorities.

  • Sevo||

    Tony| 7.16.13 @ 5:26PM |#
    "Because that's how votes are usually done."

    IOWs, shithead, you have no evidence.

  • Westmiller||

    Art 1, Sec 5, Cl 2:
    "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a member."

    The word "determine" obviously refers to a majority vote, since the exceptional vote for expulsion is higher.

    However, I do agree with some comments regarding the filibuster. It doesn't seem proper that a majority can vote to impose any procedural super-majority that isn't specified in the Constitution.

  • Sevo||

    "The word "determine" obviously refers to a majority vote, since the exceptional vote for expulsion is higher."

    You have more than one problem with your interpretation, the most obvious being that if the body may determine the Rules, it may determine (as it did) the Rules to include filibuster.

  • Mickey Rat||

    "The constitution obviously intended for the Senate to work on simple majorities for routine matters."

    Er, no. The constitution intended the Senate to come up with it own governing rules, and I seem to recall the Democrats defending the filibuster as a cornerstone of American democracy that must be kept inviolate.

  • Sevo||

    Micky R, I should have read one more post; you got it before I did.

  • Michael S. Langston||

    Precedent was broken when the filibuster became a routine matter instead of a rare political expression.

    [citation needed]

    Specifically - when did this precedent start? When was it broken? & what is "routine matter" and when did it start?

    Before you do though - I'll give you a hint - the answer to all those questions are irrelevant as whether it's used more now than later can only be analyzed when discussing what it as used for.

    IE - filibustering a criminal for instance, would seem to be the right thing to do in every single case - whereas filibustering a saint, with only perfect laws and perfect motivations and perfect intentions would be sacrilegious.

  • DontShootMe||

    If I were a gambling man, I would push Reid to enact the Nuclear Option close to the 2014 elections, betting that the Republicans would gain control of the body. Then they could use it, all the while blaming Reid for implementing it.

  • John||

    I know Reid is stupid. But why would he do that?

  • ant1sthenes||

    Because he is stupid and shortsighted?

  • Rich||

    They obviously don't give a shit about precedent.

    More detail, please.

  • Tony||

    I thought I explained... their abuse of the filibuster (a loophole in senate rules) changes the precedent that the senate functioned usually as a democratic body rather than a minority-rules one.

  • Adam330||

    How is it a "loophole?" It's laid out pretty clearly in Rule XXII. It's implications are pretty darn obvious to anyone reading it.

  • Tony||

    Passed in 1917 by Democrats--it establishes cloture but in effect created the modern filibuster. The concept of the filibuster has, however, always been associated with obstruction. It's not an intended part of US constitutional democracy.

  • Sevo||

    Tony| 7.16.13 @ 5:33PM |#
    ..."It's not an intended part of US constitutional democracy."

    Oh, LOOK! Shithead now reads the minds of dead white guys!

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Why do you assume obstruction isn't an essential or intended part of US Constitutional "Democracy"?

  • Sevo||

    It is part of the leftist belief system that pure democracy is to be preferred. Except, of course, when that democracy counters lefty policy, such as Prop 8.
    So shithead is simply inventing 'intentions' to support that agenda.
    Note above where common practice transmogrifies into "precedent".
    Or below where the majority "should" get what it wants, supposedly as a governmental policy.
    All straw grasping for a ridiculous position.

  • Adam330||

    I fail to see how this makes it a "loophole." Are you seriously saying that when they adopted a rule that you need 3/5 vote to cut off debate and go to a vote, they didn't think that a 2/5 group that opposes a bill might vote to continue debate to stop a vote? That's imputing an awful lot of stupid, even for senators. In fact, what would the purpose of such a rule be other than to permit a minority to keep debating?

    And by the way, there were other forms of "filibustering" before this (and still are), including in the house.

  • Michael S. Langston||

    Use != abuse

    Or were blacks abusing their freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of expression when they marched with MLK in Birmingham?

    What is it with liberals these days where following the rules is wrong?

    Apple pays all taxes legally - but to liberals, not enough so still wrong.

    Oh yeah - I forgot already - it's all about the ends.

    If the ends aren't what they think it should be - then the process is broken.

    So legislators using rights given them since the 1800's is a "failure of the system".

    Of course if these same legislators were filibustering all of Bush's laws, I'm sure your desire to change the rules to stop them would be your top priority.

  • Tony||

    So there's no such thing as abusing the filibuster, or have we just not reached that point yet?

  • Auric Demonocles||

    See, Republicans don't give a shit that the filibuster allowed Democrats to get their way in the mid 2000s. That's what the precedent is: Senate rules are made to get Democrats what they want. Now that Democrats are in the majority, the obvious application of this precedent is that the filibuster must not be used, because doing so would stop Democrats from getting what they want.

  • Tony||

    The majority should get what it wants in most cases--exceptions being constitutional amendments, treaties, veto overrides. You are welcome to hold me to that if the GOP gets the senate majority.

  • Sevo||

    Tony| 7.16.13 @ 5:36PM |#
    "The majority should get what it wants in most cases--exceptions being constitutional amendments, treaties, veto overrides."

    Thanks. Opinions from brain-dead lefties are really appreciated, shithead.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    The GOP already had the majority, and you support the Democrats for stopping them from getting what they wanted.

  • Sevo||

    I don't recall shithead opposing that hag Pelosi ram-rodding that mess through congress to avoid a majority vote on it.
    Did I miss it? Was he all over her for not allowing the majority to speak?

  • Adam330||

    The majority of the senate voted for the cloture/filibuster rule, including the express provision that the rule itself could be filibustered and requiring a 2/3 vote to break it. So I guess you must support that rule as well...

  • Michael S. Langston||

    The majority should get what it wants in most cases

    facts not in evidence

  • Loki||

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's bullshit. Hobbes was real.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I wrote a letter to my state's largest newspaper bemoaning the fact that the comic was ending. They ended up publishing it. I think I was 7, and my parents had it on their fridge until they moved about 15 years later.

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