The Filibuster is Bad

Every couple of weeks some right-winger or other says to me something like “you sure were singing a different tune on the filibuster back when Democrats were in the minority!” I appreciate that it’s usually a safe bet to accuse people of being hypocritical on issues of congressional procedure, but I’ve really been exceedingly consistent on this point. Back during the 2005 “nuclear option” fight over filibustering circuit court nominees I urged Democrats to try to strike a bargain that would have ending all filibusters as its goal. Similarly, today when some people make the case that “you liberals may hate the filibuster now, but you’ll be glad it’s there next time the Republicans get in” I have to tell them that, no, I won’t.

At the end of the day the main problem with a supermajority requirement has little to do with specific partisan or ideological concerns. One simply needs to note that bicameralism, plus an independently elected president, plus the congressional committee syste, plus a fairly robust system of federalism, plus a fairly robust institution of judicial review constitutes a political system that already has a ton of veto points. The main aggregate impact of all this piling-on of veto points upon veto points is to make it easier than it should be for interest groups to block broad-view reforms.* Adding a supermajority requirement in the senate on to all of that exacerbates the existing pathologies of the system. It also allows each individual senator to drive a harder bargain in the horse-trading and log-rolling sweepstakes in a manner that rarely serves the public interest. Perhaps most important of all, it tends to undermine democratic accountability by blurring the relationship between election results and policy outcomes — what you want is for election winners to be held responsible for the results, but to do that you can’t let the losers play a major role in shaping policy. Similarly, you should want candidates to be held responsible for their ideas, not to embrace policies with a kind of wink-wink you’ll never get 60 votes for that sub rosa understanding that it’s not meant to be taken seriously.

But for some ideology-specific points, I would note two key points. One is that there’s such a thing as welfare state entrenchment. Political fights to establish universal public education or universal health care or universal retirement security programs are often difficult, but nobody dismantles public commitment to these goals once they’re achieved. Making it harder to legislate makes it harder to put them in place. The second is that as it currently operates the budget reconciliation process makes the filibuster much less effective as a means of resisting tax cuts than it is as a means of resisting progressive policy ideas.

* Note that on occasion this can be a good thing . . . sometimes someone proposes a broad view reform that’s also a bad idea.



I see that Rep Alan Grayson has a petition going urging the senate to reduce the cloture threshold to 55 Senators. I didn’t think this day would come so soon, but Grayson isn’t going far enough — the Senate should decide by majority rule.