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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 12/23/2010

We don't need to fix partisanship to fix the Senate

By Ezra Klein

Thumbnail image for breakingthefilibuster.jpg

Doug Mataconis looks at my graph on the filibuster and comments:

I hear this a lot, but I don't really understand it.

For one thing, there is a good argument that eliminating the filibuster will make party-line voting less effective for the minority, and thus less common. Whether partisanship still lives in the hearts of minority senators doesn't really worry me. Whether they decide to work with the majority on legislation or continually obstruct it in order to keep the country from being effectively governed does. If obstruction ceases to work, it's not clear why they'd continue to pursue it as pretty much their only strategy. No one likes a perpetually feckless minority. (For a longer version of this case, head here.)

But the broader point is that we don't know how to fix partisanship. It's ebbed and flowed at different times in our polity, and manifested in our legislative institutions in different ways. As Gregory Koger emphasizes in his book on the filibuster, it was the House of Representatives, not the Senate, that first suffered from an overuse of filibuster-like practices, and they were eliminated when the body became unmanageable.

The good news is that we don't need to fix partisanship, which is really nothing more than organized disagreement. All we need to do is ensure that our system can function amid it. There's no great trick to that, as plenty of other countries, the House of Representatives, dinner tables where children want to eat dessert first, and "American Idol" all show. What is dangerous is to allow a system set up for a consensus-based political culture drift into highly polarized political culture. Rules can be changed to fit political realities, but political realities cannot usually be changed to fit rules.

By Ezra Klein  | December 23, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Has anyone ever done work on the correlation between the end of the Cold War and the rise of the filibuster / rise of partisanship.

It makes me wonder if removing a foreign rival of legitimately equal power has caused us to turn the fight inward.

Posted by: Mazzi455 | December 23, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

"we don't need to fix partisanship, which is really nothing more than organized disagreement."

Is it? ObamaCare ≈ RomneyCare, a Republican idea. Cap-and-Trade was GHW Bush's answer to direct regulation of pollutants. Reagan championed nuclear arms control. Do Republicans now oppose these because of ideological differences, or because Democrats now support them?

From my vantage point, admittedly less learned than yours, Ezra, it appears that partisanship is much more a nihilistic strategy for achieving power than it is "organized disagreement".

Posted by: DavidinCambridge | December 23, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Nixon championed nuke control, Reagan was his eager apprentice.

It's sort of a no brainer when you think of it.

BTW, I originally decided to vote for Clinton because he wanted to invest money into buying, destroying or guarding former Soviet nuke stockpiles whereas GHBush had expressed an unwillingness to do so after the Soviet collapse. Indeed, a friend of mine worked as a contract administrator with Lawrence Livermore Labs to facilitate these kinds of efforts, which by all accounts (of anyone outside the GOP) have done wonders to enhance nuclear security worldwide.

Posted by: lauren2010 | December 23, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

RomneyCare is a Republican "implementation" of a Democratic idea (health care). Had MASS been more conservative than liberal, even RomneyCare wouldn't have happened.

Dems have been fighting for universal health care since at least post WWII.

Liberals are a minority in the USA. It is not surprising that when liberal ideas finally get enacted, they tend to have conservative minded implementations. That doesn't mean conservatives had the good idea in the first place or even that their implementation was the best choice.

Posted by: lauren2010 | December 23, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I think that since the end of the Cold War we have lost our national identity. In foreign relations you can see the blind groping for a national identity during the Clinton years. Terms like Democratic enlargement were suppose to captivate and motivate us. Then Bush had his freedom agenda...but with the way Iraq and Afghanistan have gone...there's not much to feel good about there either.

I think this lack of identity feeling has crept into our domestic politics...politicians are reflecting their constituents desires to do something grand and meaningful again. Therefore every issue ends up getting blown up as being of utmost importance...the terms bolshevik, socalist, nazi get thrown around.

We missed a grand opportunity to make large investments into infrastructure...I think that if Americans could see something having the chunnel or the hadron collider or the three gorges damn....a new golden gate bridge...that might satisfy there need to feel important.

There is probably counter-examples that fly in the face of what i'm saying...but i do believe America's biggest problem is a spiritual one....we lack purpose.

Posted by: Mazzi455 | December 23, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Why do we keep calling "partisanship"? It's Republican obstructionism. Period. We certainly can't fix it when voters keep rewarding it.

Posted by: jtmiller42 | December 23, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

We know how to fix partisanship, as we have done it before. You find a common enemy. Here are some from the past:
The British
Black people

Posted by: flounder2 | December 23, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

1) Am I crazy, is something not working in my graphics display, or did you leave out the Mataconis clip you were responding to?

2) In my view, the problem is not the filibuster per se but a party, the GOP, that has slipped into dangerous extremism. While the filibuster allows the GOP to obstruct when in the minority, abolishing it would empower the party to do untold damage if/when it once again regains control of Congress and the Presidency.

In any sane polity, the Democrats would be considered a centrist party. The Republicans offer only magical solutions -- and act in unison not only to block but to slime and undermine any real attempts to deal with any serious problems. What can you do with a party that is content to see the U.S. remain the world's only wealthy country that does not provide universal healthcare, wants to ignore climate change, blocks any tax increases in the face of a mountain of debt and soaring healthcare costs (while demagoging health care cost controls), guts regulation as a matter of principle, votes more than 2-1 against a vital nuclear arms treaty, essentially advocates new wars of aggression, has acclimated more than half the population to torture as a core element of national security while pushing a quadrupling of incarceration here at home?

For Democrats, I fear that dismantling the filibuster may prove to be preemptive unilateral disarmament. I want it in place the next time the Republicans gain control of Congress and/or the presidency.

Posted by: sprung4 | December 23, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

As Ezra has pointed out, the purpose of the obstruction is to create failure for the ruling party and defeat them in the next election. The GOP have figured out that this is their only route to power against a superstar like Obama but also generally because if you actually look at Democratic policies (tax the rich and eliminate pre-existing conditions, for example) they are simply of much higher utility for the vast majority of voters. The filibuster is the GOP's friend because it allows them to avoid a contest of ideas and instead blame the Democrats for a failure to govern actually orchestrated by the GOP.

Posted by: MikeRayinBerkeley | December 24, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I was reading the democrats braying blasphemy as usual Thank God for republican obstructioism otherwise the liberals will destroy the USA.King O is doing everything He can to bankrupt the USA. He would sue his own wife if one of his liberal judges said it would cost the USA 1 or 2 billion dollars that he could borrow off of China.

Posted by: wchan22 | December 25, 2010 8:21 PM | Report abuse

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