By Request: Filibusters


Jason asks:

Are there really any strong reasons for the 111th Senate to adopt Rule 22 (60 votes for cloture)?

I don’t really want to do an analysis of the short-term of the short term politics, spin, and ethics surrounding this issue beyond noting that back during the “nuclear option” fight I took an anti-filibuster line. Instead, I think it’s more useful to think in broader and more abstract terms.

The book that’s been most influential on my thinking in this regard is George Tsebelis’ Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work. One of the points he makes (no idea how original this is to him) is that one of the best ways to characterize different types of political regimes is in terms of how many veto points exist at which legislation can be blocked.

In a Westminster regime such as they have in the UK or Canada, there’s just one. The cabinet formulates a proposal, and then it needs to be voted on in parliament. And thanks to tight party discipline, things are basically never blocked. One variant on that is a system, such as they have in Israel or the Netherlands, that combines a unicameral parliament with cabinets that are invariably formed by coalitions. In a system like that, the threat of a parliamentary veto is more real and you can see government crises and collapses. In some countries, there’s an elected president who can veto legislative actions, which adds another veto point. And in some countries there’s a second legislative house whose concurrence is necessary to pass legislation.

The United States has all three of those things. It also has a system in which a bill generally needs majority support on relevant committees and subcommittees in order to pass. All told, that’s a lot of veto points compared to what you see in most democracies.

So that’s the context in which to ask whether or not it makes sense to have a supermajority requirement for many Senate votes. I would say “no.” Even absent the filibuster, our system would still feature an unusually large number of veto points, especially when you take our unusually robust system of judicial review into account. The supermajority requirement is at odds with our basic democratic norms, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with an example of it ever actually being used to protect the interests of some kind of put-upon minority, and I see no empirical reason to think that our systematically larger number of veto points is producing systematically better results than you see elsewhere. On the other hand, there’s good reason to believe that the large number of veto points makes it easier for narrow interest groups to block public interest reforms.