To understand how Senator Feingold managed to pull this off calls for a primer on the arcana of Senate procedure. Debate cannot be terminated and measures voted on unless 60 senators vote for “cloture.” Consequently, senators can block legislation by filibustering until a sufficient number of senators vote to end debate and proceed to a vote.
The senator who would provide the sixtieth vote has enormous bargaining leverage as she is in a position to extract changes to the underlying bill in exchange for her support. Generally, the best way to build a coalition for a liberal proposal is to secure the votes of the 60 most liberal senators. So in this scenario the pivotal senator is the 60th most liberal. With the death of senator Robert Byrd, this position is held by the ever so slightly more conservative of the two Maine senators, Susan Collins (Olympia Snowe is #59 most liberal; Feingold is #1).***
As it turns out, there were real consequences of Feingold forcing Brown into the pivot position. One of the provisions to come out of the House-Senate conference was a levy on large financial firms to pay for the costs of financial regulation. This provision was quickly dubbed a “bank tax”. As a result, Brown, who had supported the earlier Senate version, began to waver. The provision not only ran counter to his ideological opposition to anything resembling a tax increase, but would have been costly to large financial firms in Brown’s home state.
In the aftermath of Byrd’s death, a defection by Brown would necessitate picking up both Democrats who had opposed the original Senate bill, Feingold and Washington’s Maria Cantwell. Cantwell came around, Feingold didn’t, and the bank tax was gone. As a result, $19 billion in costs were shifted from the banks to the taxpayer. Feingold has performed the legislative equivalent of voting for Nader in Florida in the 2000 presidential election: standing on principle only to get an outcome he couldn’t possibly have wanted.
In this era of polarized politics, the ideologically-driven behavior of our political leaders is often lamented. But in the end, both progressives and conservatives normally make short-term compromises with their principles in order to achieve some of their long-term goals. Senator Feingold’s unwillingness to do the same has resulted in the equivalent of yet another bank bailout.
And before this devolves into another idiotic thread accusing me of hippy-punching, let me restate that I would probably have rather had Feingold’s dream bill. I would have supported the Feingold dream bill. I would have voted for it. At this point, my distaste for the FIRE community is so great I would support public decimation. If Bernie Sanders said “let’s nationalize the banks,” my immediate response would be “when do we start.”
But dreams aren’t real, and in the real world, numbers matter. There are 60 prima donnas in the Senate, they have set their rules up so that they have more power than the House, and in the short term there just isn’t much that can change that. This has been one of the maddening aspects of being a Democrat the last couple of years- the constant harping about what people wish for as opposed to what is possible. As my platoon sergeant was fond of saying, “wish in one hand and shit in the other and tell me which one fills up first.”