The Filibuster and Incentive-Compatible Governance

I was at a conference yesterday talking about this and that. The short version of my story goes like this.

The United States of America is in some ways a young nation, but in other ways we’ve got a very old polity and probably the world’s oldest constitution. The reason we’ve been able to manage without sudden revolutionary change is that instead we’ve had continuous evolutionary change as our institutions adapt to changing circumstances and values. Over most of the twentieth century, one important circumstances to which our institutions were adapted was the fact that our political parties displayed a low level of ideological coherence. But the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 set in motion a series of events that have led to twenty years of coherent parties and polarization.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with coherent parties and polarized politics. Lots of democracies get on fine with them. But they don’t work well with the particular institutions we happen to have. In particular, our system allows a congressional minority to obstruct the majority’s work. Traditionally this served to force the majority to compromise, but in an era of coherent and polarized parties the minority has little incentive to agree to any compromise since creating the perception or reality that the majority has failed benefits the minority. The results have not been pretty.

The most common prescription is to demand an end to polarization and wish for a return to bipartisanship. But this is a pie in the sky notion — we can’t bring back Jim Crow just to make Congress more amicable. The smarter idea would be to adapt our institutions. Let the majority govern. Let the minority criticize the majority, but don’t let them prevent the majority from governing. Then let the majority take its record to the voters. If the majority does well, they’ll be re-elected. If not, then not. Legislation will be highly partisan, but policy will still reflect ideas from both parties since the parties are bound to alternate in power.