The Strange Case for the Filibuster

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David Parker wrote a defense of the filibuster for Newsweek the other day that was both utterly typical and utterly weird in that it doesn’t actually defend the filibuster. It doesn’t argue that a 60-vote supermajority requirement is better than a 67-vote requirement, or better than a 55-vote supermajority requirement. It doesn’t say that Minnesota’s State Senate ought to start operating on a supermajority principle, or that we erred by creating a constitution for Japan that allows a majority in the parliament to prevail.

Instead he says things like filibuster opponents’ “arguments are often based on the assumption that simple majority rule is always desirable.” That’s silly. Obviously when the majority is inclined to vote for bad legislation, majority rule is not desirable. But our arguments are based on the fact that a legislature needs to operate according to some rule and that majority rule is, as a principle, preferable to the available alternatives.

He then goes on to discuss some points that are only loosely related, like the idea that strong party discipline is undesirable (I disagree, but this is a different issue from whether a supermajority rule is desirable). Then he seems to mount a contradictory argument that (a) one of the good things about the filibuster is that it promotes parochialism (I agree, but this is bad), and (b) that liberals shouldn’t complain about parochialism because it’s inevitable (I agree, but see [a] the filibuster promotes parochialism). Then he rolls off some nonsense about because individual senators tend to be hypocritical about process arguments, that we shouldn’t take seriously any proposition about the desirability of changing the political process.

I think what you’re seeing here is just psychological anchoring and status quo bias at work. If the United States Senate operated by majority rule, I promise you that nobody would be saying “what with bicameralism, the committee system, and the presidential veto the problem with this country is that it doesn’t have enough legislative choke points—we should implement a supermajority voting requirement in the less-representative legislative body.” It’s too silly.