The Senate filibuster and cloture practice is one of the most visible procedural features of Congress and yet political scientists have limited knowledge about Americans’ attitudes about the practice and the associated democratic values of majority rule and minority rights.
During the 2009 battle over health-care reform, we measured the preferences of the same 800 individuals in two contexts: in a period (August 2009) characterized by relatively little media coverage of Senate procedures, and later (January 2010) in the immediate aftermath of a major obstructionist episode in the Senate. Then, we examined changes in filibuster attitudes with an important intervening event in order to better understand the causes and consequences of filibuster opinions.
We find that public attitudes about the Senate filibuster crystallized during the legislative episode in a way consistent with the short-term policy and partisan advantages of the cloture rule. At our initial interview, public opinions toward the filibuster were connected to more abstract procedural values: those who favor majority rule more than minority rights tend to oppose the filibuster. The healthcare debate altered public attitudes about the filibuster. Republicans and bill opponents became more supportive of the filibuster. As a result, partisan polarization on the value of the filibuster increased at the second interview. Even many of those favoring majority rule, who were disproportionately Republicans and conservative at the start, shifted their views about the filibuster during the episode to more frequently express support for the filibuster practice.
We further explored whether those attitudes have political implications. First, we find that filibuster attitudes have an asymmetric effect for the evaluation of the two parties. Controlling for the effect of party identification, support or opposition to the filibuster practice is related to blame of the Republicans, the minority party that employed the filibuster. On the other hand, only policy views, not filibuster attitudes, are related to blame of the Democrats, the majority party. Second, we find that public opinion on the Senate filibuster is not translated into a significant effect on vote intention, independent of partisan and policy considerations.
Attitudes toward the filibuster appear to be weakly related to attitudes about majority rule and minority rights more generally and, for many Americans, can change with political circumstances. Attitudes toward the filibuster have very weak or no political consequences independent of partisanship and policy views.