Let Congress be Congress again
In the filibuster thread this morning, commenter Spotatl asked, "If you really just dislike the filibuster overall and not just because the democrats currently have the majority you would support doing away with it in 7 years when no one has any idea who is going to be in control?"
Yes! Indeed, that's exactly the strategy I've suggested in the past. Make it 10 years, if you like. Anything else will be perceived, quite rightly, as a power grab, and whatever my opinion on the desirability of that power grab, it's impossible to imagine it happening. Breaking a filibuster, after all, requires 60 votes. Changing a Senate rule requires 67.
More to the point, it's important for Congress to begin thinking that way again. For the filibuster to end, Congress is going to have to rediscover its institutional voice. Democrats hate the filibuster when they're in power, and Republicans loathe it when they're in power, but it won't end until Congress decides it an enemy of Congress, rather than of whichever party happens to be in the majority at that moment.
People occasionally let slip that the filibuster is one of the checks and balances written into the Constitution. It isn't, of course. And its centrality to the process is a symptom of the failure of the checks and balances envisioned in our founding document. Congress was supposed to be stronger than the executive branch, and in competition with it. As such, it was considered very important, and very obvious, that Congress would work diligently to maximize its own power and authority. Congress would never permit some loophole to render it an ineffective branch, dependent entirely on rare supermajorities and presidential momentum to pass legislation.
But in recent years, American politics has become entirely about the president. Congressional elections are referendums on the president. Republicans lost in 2006 because Bush was unpopular, not because Harry Reid was beloved. Democrats understand that their fortunes are lashed to Obama's success, and Republicans have been clear that their return to power runs through his failure. Congress defines itself in relation to the president. That makes the filibuster very important to whichever party isn't in charge of the White House. It means the minority party has a continual stake in Congress not really working, because that means the president can't really succeed.
That's bad for the president, of course, but over time, it's also bad for Congress and bad for democracy. It means power devolves from the legislature and towards unelected, unaccountable organizations like the Federal Reserve, the EPA, the super MedPAC commission, or the courts. It means that the American people become frustrated with politics because the lever they think gets things done -- the presidency -- seems continually ineffective. It means that Congress falls out of practice at generating solutions to problems, and you develop the strange situation in which it appears to serve the president's agenda, as opposed to the president waiting for congressional action (people would find it peculiar, for instance, if Congress was carrying on with a serious health-care reform effort if Barack Obama was not also engaged in the subject).
The filibuster will end when Congress decides that it wants to be an effective, powerful institution again. But that's the only incentive Congress has to end it. So long as it's simply a question of partisan power, someone will always be in the minority, and so someone will always see the filibuster as serving their interests.
November 24, 2009; 5:05 PM ET
Categories: Congress , Senate
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