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The Senate can change its rules, but it can't change the country

Gerald Seib's column diagnosing the problems of the Senate as being problems of our politics is very good, and echoes my own thinking to an almost scary degree. As he says, the "broader political system, more than the filibuster, is the problem." After all: The filibuster has been around for more than a century. The question is why it's being used this way now when it wasn't used this way before.

There are a couple of answers to this question, but the basic one is partisan polarization. Seib, like many commentators, seems to want to roll that side of it back: He mentions the travel stipends that pull legislators back home every weekend so they don't build deep relationships with one another, and he mentions the defeat of moderate senators who acted as a "human bridge" between the parties, and he mentions the rise of national news sources that let legislators speak to the base rather than their districts.

That wouldn't necessarily be my precise list, but it's all fair enough. What's important, though, is recognizing that we have no way of changing it. There is no policy that can roll back polarization. It is not the fault of individuals and it will not be solved by other individuals. The national media will not become local media, and more weekends in D.C. will not mean that Chuck Grassley no longer fears a primary challenge and so partners with Max Baucus to reform the health-care system.

We have a polarized political culture tied up in rules meant for a consensus-oriented culture. That's not a terrible problem: The rules, unlike the culture, can be changed. But because people have a tendency to inveigh against partisanship and polarization, there's resistance to making the rule changes that would admit that this is how our system works now. We don't want to admit it. We're like an infected patient who refuses to take medicine because doing so is an admission of vulnerability and mortality.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 17, 2010; 10:52 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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This talk about polarization is beginning to sound like, 'it was all so much easier back in grandpa's days'.

Posted by: leoklein | February 17, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

This was exactly the problem I had with Seib's article and, as you say, it speaks to a larger problem in the commentariat. Yes, the problem is increased polarization, but when politicians and pundits say the answer is "less partisanship," they never answer the question of how.

Keep in mind that sharply delineated parties are the norm throughout the democratic world. Even in the United States, partisan polarization was fairly high through the first part of the 20th Century. In fact, on Jack Balkin's blog, there was an interesting post from about a week back that found that most major legislation up through the late 19th Century - including most social policy -
passed the Senate on a strictly majoritarian basis. And the threat of rules changes - which were seen as the prerogative of the majority party - were used to ensure quick debates and quick legislation. Restoring the Senate to majoritarian rule wouldn't be a break with its history - it would be a reversion back to how it functioned the last time there the United States had a strong party system.

The party system weakened in the 20th due to, first, the progressive movement (which infiltrated both parties), then the legacy of the New Deal, which led northern liberals (many of whom had been Republicans) into a position of power in the Democratic Party. That in turn led to a slow, steady exodus of conservatives, especially in the South, towards the Republicans.

There is no way that politicians can consciously create that kind of movement. Hoping that somehow the Republican Party will become less obstructionist is beyond naive. And it really irks me when you have people like Chris Dodd today say this. The old party system ISN'T COMING BACK. The only solution is to change the rules and make the Senate a majoritarian body again.

Posted by: Isa8686 | February 17, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

i believe a lot of this has to do with our inability as a nation to deal with any level of failure even a small amount. Its evident in some progressives needs to kill health reform that doesn't include a public option even though many will die without it and similarly Republican's needs to stop every piece of legislation even though most are justified. Americans in general don't take losses well anymore. We always feel that some other legislator can do better because we stress perfection in every aspect of our lives and then when that perfection doesn't come its deemed a failure even though many individual successes may have come from it. We all need to get past that if we are to grow as a nation.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 17, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

We could perhaps reduce partisanship with open primaries, so that candidates of both parties would have to face the voters of both parties. Then general election voters would have a choice between two more moderate candidates, not two extreme ones. The trouble with this solution, I believe, is that the Constitution gives States the right to set election laws. So, the change would have to happen in some significant number of states, which would take more time and effort than a fix of the Senate filibuster.

Posted by: Chris48 | February 17, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

"He mentions the travel stipends that pull legislators back home every weekend so they don't build deep relationships with one another"

Oh, yeah, that's exactly what we need. Our elected officials never getting home to see their constituencies or their families. That would really improve the political process.

"We're like an infected patient who refuses to take medicine because doing so is an admission of vulnerability and mortality."

No, each side is worried that the other side will be better off in some way. The Democrats worry that the Republicans will be table to pass tax cuts and Social Security reform without impediment, and Republicans worry that Democrats will be able to cap and tax us into single payer healthcare. They'd rather sacrifice their own policy victories in order to prevent their opponents from ever winning a round. It's more important, to both sides, to be able to stop the other guys than it is to advance their own legislation.

In other words, the Democrats might love to have single payer healthcare, or employer mandates with a public option, but not at the cost of the Republicans passing Social Security Reform one day, or more tax cuts for the rich.

The Democrats will see cap and trade dead and buried, if that's what it takes to keep the Republicans from advancing their agenda, when the time comes.

And vice versa. The Republicans want more tax cuts, but not at the expense that the Democrats might get an up-and-down vote on HCR.

It's more important for them to be able to stop rather than advance. They are more interested in protecting than achieving. They would rather deny their opponents a victory than being victorious themselves. And that's it in a nutshell.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 17, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

*We're like an infected patient who refuses to take medicine because doing so is an admission of vulnerability and mortality.*

It bears mentioning that Obama ran on a platform of "curing" our problems with polarization, rather than promising to stand up to his partisan opponents. And not only that but *the public found this message very appealing* and *more appealing than the alternative*.

Posted by: constans | February 17, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Kevin's right - the ability to obstruct has led to a perverse system where senators of both parties basically content themselves with blocking legislation from the other party rather than passing legislation of their own.

And since obstruction works, it has a clear electoral incentive. Better to block the other party's proposals than to reap the public's dissatisfaction with your own controversial legislation.

The other factor in this is that - to a fairly shocking degree - it seems like the out of power party is always convinced that when THEY come to power, it'll be different and the opposition will support some of their agenda. And to be fair to the Republicans, Democrats DID support a fair amt of their agenda when they got unified control in 2001-2007.

Posted by: Isa8686 | February 17, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

You can change the rules, but unless you change the underlying problem of polarization, that won't provide a real solution.

Take the analogy of aircraft hijackings in the 1970s and 80s. Every time a new policy was implemented to prevent a future incident, a hijacker would find a way around it. If someone wants to behave badly, changing the rules is like daring them to find a new way to beat them. That's what criminals do.

I put the cable news media and general political yakfest (yes, and this includes the Intertubes, above all) as being central to the problem. Maybe when people tire of focusing on politics like a blood sport, some kind of behavioral change among elected officials will become possible. As long as the media can profit from creating a slugfest mentality, I don't think the situation will improve.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | February 17, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

"...he mentions the rise of national news sources that let legislators speak to the base rather than their districts."

One way to fight back against the wingnuts in the media is to heavily tax all advertisements on ANY news or political talk show. Tax them to the point that no one wants to advertise. News shows shouldn't be profit driven anyway.

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 17, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I think that the country is headed toward a division into four or five almost independent super-regions and a new arrangement that resembles the Articles of Confederation. It will take about thirty years so, fortunately, I won't be around.

Posted by: golewso | February 17, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

LSA nailed it. It would be a return back to how things *were*.

As he said (and Seib quickly stated), ideology is now neatly placed in each party (whereas before there were conservative racist Dems and liberal NE Republicans). Moderates haven't been "defeated," they're just controlled more by parties. This is all the problem, not the fact people with different ideologies tend to disagree.

I'd hate to say it as a pretty ideological guy, but dispersing ideology between the parties is extremely important in getting back to being able to govern again. I think removing the filibuster would lessen politicians' incentive to jump in an ideological bunker in every single policy battle -- if more stuff passes, party popularity would be determined more by "what works," rather than "what could they pass."

Making the Senate more majoritarian is the first step this, not getting some Senators to grab a beer after work. If the Dems/GOP have 51 votes, the Senate works and things get passed.

Plus, as a liberal, I can take comfort knowing that the filibuster has been a historical tool to block progressive change. Looking at every single other western democracy shows this: with more majoritarianism comes less inequality over the long term. This is because social welfare has a funny way of being extremely popular once enacted over powerful interests (see Scott Brown's love of MA socialist health care). Yeah, the GOP might destroy Medicare in the short term without anyone to block them -- but they'd be insanely unpopular if they did.

With this *credible* threat of being unpopular and clear lines of responsibility, you'd have fewer Sarah Palins making empty threats and more GOPers making an honest effort at forming policy. And, it'd lessen the huge sense of paranoia and powerlessness on the right at the moment, because they'd have the power to govern when it becomes their turn. All of this is good stuff.

Posted by: Chris_ | February 17, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

"We have a polarized political culture tied up in rules meant for a consensus-oriented culture. That's not a terrible problem: The rules, unlike the culture, can be changed."

This is exactly right but I would go further and argue that one of the major problems is that one of our parties is just much more interested in testing and stretching these rules than the other.

Consider some of the most creative and radical attempts to push our outdated procedural rules over the last 10 years or so: impeachment, Bush v. Gore, the nuclear option, the various procedural tricks used by Tom DeLay, and now the current filibuster total war. In all of these cases the rules authorizing these actions had been in place for decades (if not centuries). The only thing that changed was the Republican party's willingness to cross unwritten standards of "decorum" and actually use these procedural tricks to win elections and (ultimately) enact their ideas into law.

This has inevitably been met with incredulous observers asking: "Don't they realize that the Democrats will do the same to them when they are back in power?" But of course the Republicans realize something very important: the Democrats simply will not respond in kind. With a 60 year old Democratic priority fading fast, there is ZERO talk of Democrats issuing a "nuclear option," or even using the far less controversial reconciliation process.

This isn't just a "frustrated liberal" rant. The principles of dueling interest groups are a fundamental part of our democracy -- they have a pedigree stretching all the way back to the Federalist papers. Those old unwritten rules implicitly assumed that any radical action will be taken up by BOTH parties. As we've seen, the moment one party unilaterally disarms, all the unwritten understandings propping up our system just evaporate away.

Posted by: NS12345 | February 17, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

*But of course the Republicans realize something very important: the Democrats simply will not respond in kind.*

And not only that, but the Democrats were elected *running on a platform* of not responding in kind. Pelosi said "impeachment is off the table" during the '06 campaign, and Obama was all about "breaking down our partisan differences."

Let's fault the Democratic base a bit here: they are consistently suckers for a kumbayah/"new kind of politics"/"end to partisan bickering" sloganeering. In their defense, this is probably because many of them are more concerned about tangible policy results rather than winning pissing matches, but the the results do not seem forthcoming, either.

Posted by: constans | February 17, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

NS and constans nail it and spotlight the point that Ezra studiously avoids with his comfortable establishment cliches about polarization and partisanship. One side actually will use the institutional devices at hand to enact its ideas or block the other side from enacting its ideas. The other side is not comparably committed to doing so or to making the other side pay a public price for its obstructionism by, you know, pointing out that the other side is playing anti-majoritarian games. I guess Ezra doesn't want to point this out about the Dems because it might cause us to ask why the Dems tolerate this with their usual charming supine spinelessness.

Posted by: redscott | February 17, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Part of the problem is that the main fundraisers and volunteers for each party are from the fringes - the Religious Right / Tea Partiers on the Right and the NetRoots / Unions on the Left. Both have an outsized voice relative to their absolute numbers. Both sides are instrumental in driving out their own moderates in the name of party purity. The Senate needs more Southern conservative Democrats and liberal Northeastern Republicans. People who can cut a deal.

The House can successfully push legislation originated from the either party's ideological fringes, but in the Senate, you need to start in the center, and move outward. Democrats rolled the dice on drafting health care from the Left and moving grudgingly to the center as necessary to pick up votes. High risk / high reward play. Now they have no margin for error.

Anyway, the Senate is supposed to be a brake on ideological shifts in the winds. Be happy this brake exists when a President Palin and a Republican congress over-read their mandate and try and kill Social Security on a narrow party-line vote.

Posted by: sold2u | February 17, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

*Democrats rolled the dice on drafting health care from the Left*

As one could tell you over and over again, the bill started out pre-compromised to begin with: first in that the bill from the house was not single payer but a conservative compromise whose public option was an afterthought. Starting from the left would have started with single payer to begin with.

And then the Senate drafted its own bill essentially from scratch which *from the start* involved Max Baucus, 2 centrist Democrats, and 3 conservative Republicans trying to draft a bill. But the Republicans realized that it was in their interest to have *no* Health Care Reform at all, no matter how many of their ideas they could have gotten put into it... their entire claim was that these essentially tailored-for-Republicans bills were "a marxist plot and the greatest threat to america's freedom in decades."

Posted by: constans | February 17, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

@sold2UL "Be happy this brake exists when a President Palin and a Republican congress over-read their mandate and try and kill Social Security on a narrow party-line vote."

There will never be a president Palin. I adore Palin (as I may have mentioned) but I don't think she will ever hold elective office again. I'd say it's a lot more likely that she'd be the Secretary of State in a Scott Brown (just joking) administration. I don't think she's done with political office, but her next political office will be appointed, not elected.

And that's a perfect example of what I was saying: each side would rather be assured they can prevent the other side from advancing their agenda than be able to advance their own agenda.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 17, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse


I'm not being condascending here but I've heard that argument about single payer being compromised away and all the single payer advocates being upset that the handful of people were thrown out of a meeting for being disruptive but truthfully how much of the country truly would sign on for single payer run by the government today? 5%, 10% more? That's like allowing the crazies that wanted to privatize social security to do so. It'll never happen until costs FORCE it to happen and with subsidies buffering us to cost (if reform ever happens) I'd think whatever the true percentage is that it would be decreasing rather than increasing.

You also talk about the SFC proposal but forget all about the other 4 congressional committees that had their say and put forth bills. Please don't conveniently forget the truths when making a point.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 17, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse


Please list for us the entities that in your mind are allowed to be for profit driven. Sure go ahead and tax them that's fine but to say that the news shouldn't be for profit driven is ludicrous. If you don't like it, don't watch it. If you want not for profit look to cspan, npr etc.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 17, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

visiobrkr, if it were truly a Marxist liberal fringe bill as the right-wing crazies are claiming, then it would have represented the interests of the left 20%-30% of the country. But single payer wasn't on the table... it was compromised and recompromised in the interests of being palatable to moderates and conservatives.

And nothing you said contradicts the fact that Baucus's committee was an entirely center-right dominated process *which the Republicans opposed on principle*. "sold2u"'s arguments are completely and utterly disingenuous.

And, it stands to remind you, these were the bills that the Republicans claimed were a Marxist, Stalinist power grab to destroy america.

Posted by: constans | February 17, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse


you really think single payer run by the government has 20-30% people that are for it? I'd have thought 10-15% max. Either way even using your numbers progressives want to force on 100% of the population what you liberally estimate 70-80% of us disagree with?

hey at least you didn't lump me in with the crazies. See, progress!!

And yes i don't disagree that Baucus can be assumed to be center-right as compared to say Nancy Pelosi but the sheer fact of the matter is that a truly centrist policy was legislated out of the SFC and then it moved a little left when the entire senate passed it through. Its still possible for Nancy to get her caucus to sign off on the senate bill as is but she won't do it and she'll have no one to blame but herself when she loses her speaker position sooner or later because of it. It may not happen in this cycle but it'll happen.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 17, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

@constans: Single payer is the farthest left on the ideological scale possible. You might have been able to get Bernie Sanders on board, but probably not many others. FWIW, the furthest right negotiating position would be to eliminate Medicare and Medicaid. Both positions are uber-extreme and dead on arrival.

Whatever you think of the process, it is a fact that the end product is still too far left for the majority of the country. You can try and believe that Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck sunk healthcare for you with their lies, but come on - the rest of the mainstream media was blatantly cheering it on and democrats were selling it every chance they got. The Left got it chance to make its case.

The democrats should have started in the Senate with the low-hanging fruit - fixing the worst abuses of the health insurance industry, thrown a bone to the Republicans with tort reform, thrown in some subsidies, built a consensus, declared victory and moved on.

Posted by: sold2u | February 17, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Right, I do wonder if abolishing the filibuster might actually make some votes more bipartisan. For example, if health care were bound to pass anyway, then maybe Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln would have voted no, but Snowe and Collins might have voted yes, since they didn't have the potential to block the bill.

Posted by: Isa8686 | February 17, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

I can’t help but think about how our history would look if there had been a presidential election in 1930 instead of 1932. Suppose FDR was elected just after the market crash of 1929 but when the early ravages of the great depression were just starting. Would he have been able to get anything done? It's like Obama was elected in 1930 instead of 1932. He was able to avert a great depression because he came in earlier and so instead we have only a long slow painful recovery. But what we have lost is the ability for a united democratic party to put into place the next century's new deal policies because we never reached the bottom.

Posted by: Levijohn | February 17, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Based on my observations this past year, I question the validity of the proposition that partisanship is primarily based on ideological differences.

Of course, ideological differences are there. But, it seems to me that the current extreme partisan divide has more to do with one's "re-electability" (keeping my job and all the associated perks and perceived power) than one's actual ideological bent.

Which begs the question, IF we could de-incentivize THAT (the desire for re-election at all costs), would that change this extreme partisanship/behavior?

I don't have the answer.

Posted by: onewing1 | February 17, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Would it be possible to go back to the old filibuster rules? Now the minority party just states its intention to filibuster, votes are counted and the majority party folds. I'd like to see a real filibuster where the minority party has to take the floor and keep talking 34/7. that would be a sight for the late night people on CNN. About day 4 is when I would tune in to look. If they want to filibuster make them work for it.

Posted by: diomede | February 17, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

*Single payer is the farthest left on the ideological scale possible*

No. Single provider is the furthest, which would be an NHS/VA-style program in which the doctors and nurses are public employees. Single payer would just be some form of "medicare for all."

Posted by: constans | February 17, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

While it's true the filibuster has existed for a long time without being quite so abused, it has never really served much of a positive purpose, and is still anti-democratic in nature.

Even if this moment in time is an exception to the rule regarding the comity of the Senate, it still is the exception that shows the gaping flaw in the system itself. Politics breeds passion and contempt, the system shouldn't be designed so that these things alone will shut down the entire government.

Posted by: burndtdan | February 17, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Senator Clinton Anderson (D-New Mexico) noted of the filibuster “It affects and conditions every piece of legislation from the time it is a twinkle in the eye of its parent through every stage of gestation and birth." He made this statement in 1954. The idea that the filibuster is a new force is simply wrong. The routine use on minor matters has increased but I suspect that what has changed the most is the number of cloture votes - not the power of the filibuster threat. Back in the "glory" days of bipartisanship you had racist Southern Democrats allying with Republicans in a conservative coalition that controlled legislative outcomes for most of the period from 1937 through the 1970s (with a brief hiatus in the Johnson years). For example, the Humphrey Hawkins full employment bill from the Carter years was totally gutted under the filibuster threat from Orren Hatch (who is happily still making filibuster threats). At the time, they referred to it as the Humphrey-Hawkins-Hatch Act because of his role in shaping the bill - and he ultimately didn't even vote for it. Filibusters have killed every effort at labor law reform since 1965. I suspect there was a little less obstructionism in stopping bills - as opposed to gutting bills - perhaps because the Republicans didn't feel they had a realistic chance of taking control of Congress because of the Democrats hold on the South. More recently the threat of a filibuster played a major role in sinking Clinton's health reform bill - in part because Republicans saw its defeat as providing the momentum to take over Congress. Moreover, because of the power of conservative Democrats in the House committee system up until reforms in the 1970s, filibusters often did not have to be launched in the Senate because a conservative minority had already killed (or gutted) the legislation in the House. When something like a civil rights bill did manage to make it out of the House with the rare alliance of non-Southern Democrats and Republicans who were at that time supportive of civil rights, the Southerners would pull out the filibuster. Bottom line, there is nothing new about minority obstruction in the American political system. We just seem to notice it more when we have a majority we expected would accomplish more.

Posted by: mwmaceyka | February 17, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Norm Ornstein of AEI mentioned a pretty good idea at the crfb meeting: force all Congress members to work 9 to 5 everyday for three weeks, then give them one week to go home to their districts. Also, during those 3 weeks they cannot "dial for dollars." Increase housing subsidies so members can afford to maintain 2 homes - or convert federal properties into apartments for congressional families. A number of attendees and speakers at the meeting agreed that it would help greatly to overcome the partisanship if congress members spent more time getting to know one another. Also required: redistricting to eliminate gerrymandering - something I've been pushing for a long time.

Posted by: valkayec | February 17, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

The country has never been and will never be as polarized as it was in the 1850's and yet the filibuster was not overused then.

What has changed is the total loss of decency, honesty and a sense of honor.

And sadly, all on one side of the aisle.

Posted by: pj_camp | February 17, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

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