Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Filibuster: Ally of Bipartisanship

The first part of an occasional series in defense of the filibuster

So long as our republic continues to be dominated by a two-party system (a two-hundred-year tradition that does not show any signs of deteriorating), each house of Congress will always have a single party in the majority. A majority party---and not a multipartisan coalition---will always be in control. The outstanding question is, then, how far should this control extend. How much power should a majority qua majority have in a given legislative body?

A 51-vote majority in the Senate could, without the filibuster, pass whatever measures it likes, regardless of the minority's wishes (the House approaches this model). There would be relatively little value placed on bipartisan comity due to the diminished necessity of bipartisanship. With the filibuster as it stands, a simple majority must have some cooperation from the minority in order to be able to pass anything. Under the current filibuster rules, a majority party has two options: be lucky enough to have at least 60 votes in your party coalition or be prepared to work across the aisle. Since those 60 votes have proven to be so elusive, most majorities in the past thirty years have been forced to choose some bipartisanship.

So the filibuster as it currently stands often incentivizes bipartisan cooperation. The threat of the filibuster in part requires deals to be made, deals that give members of both parties a hand in crafting legislation. The emphasis on deal-making cuts against the tendencies of factions to turn upon one another with rhetorical violence. Cooperation counteracts partisan disunion.

The filibuster ensures that a temporary, shallow majority is limited in its power. The problem that Democrats in the Senate face vis-a-vis health-care is not the existence of the filibuster but instead the fact that the public perception of the Democrats' reform bill is exceedingly negative. It is this unpopularity that increases the skepticism of moderate Democrats and guarantees that no Republican will want to vote for this measure. If the public were truly clamoring for the current idea of Obamacare, health-care "reform" would have flown through the Senate. Instead, partisan loyalty ran up against public opinion, and public opinion may now be gaining the upper hand.

The Founders, rightly or not, feared the distorting influence of "faction" in politics. The filibuster pounds away at the partisan echochamber that too many members of both parties can lose themselves in. It encourages the moderation of partisan energies and creates an alternative, but often salubrious, incentive for cross-partisan exchanges. Parties can often create their own petty wisdoms, and the need for broader cooperation helps puncture the balloons of bloviation and self-serving justification.

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