I don't know whether Harold Meyerson or his editors thought up the term "filibuster nation." But it's a good 'un. It's not just that vocal minorities dominate the workings of the Senate, but they also have a tendency to overwhelm the public debate. How much time have you spent hearing about "Birthers" in recent weeks? Or tea parties? Remember PUMAs?
That's largely a media-driven phenomenon, though. The filibuster, by contrast, is embedded in the Senate's procedures. It can be changed. And it should be.
There are two ways to look at the filibuster. One is that it increases bipartisanship, because it forces the majority to cut deals with the minority. That's the traditional view, and it has proved wrong. The problem is that it's premised on the assumption that the first-best outcome for the minority party is a bipartisan bill. That's not true. The first-best outcome for the minority -- be it Democratic or Republican -- has proved to be no bill. That's how Republicans returned to power in 1994 and how Democrats took back the Congress in 2006.
This makes intuitive sense when you think about it. A minority legislator's first goal is to win reelection. Their second goal is to reenter the majority so they can write the legislation. Giving the ruling party a major accomplishment -- either bipartisan or partisan -- makes both goals harder to achieve. So the minority does not use the filibuster for that purpose. The goal is not a bipartisan bill. It's no bill.
There's a good argument, in fact, that eliminating the filibuster would make the Senate a more, rather than less, bipartisan institution. For many legislative efforts, it would remove the "no bill" outcome from the list of possibilities. That would leave minority legislators with one of two options. Vote against a bill that will pass, or work to change and improve and add priorities to a bill that will pass. You might imagine that if "no bill" is the first-best outcome, then a "no vote" would be the second-best outcome. But that's not always true: Voters aren't very interested in ineffectual opposition. They're interested in what you've "done." That can mean killing a bad bill or improving a successful bill. Voting no, over and over again, isn't a very impressive record in any but the most partisan districts.
Photo credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.
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