The Filibuster Must Die(t)

October 21, 2010 at 6:08 pm (By Maxwell James)

Writing of the sharp budget cuts now being implemented by the British Tories, Matthew Yglesias makes a good point:

But I do hope that American conservatives will look at the UK and recognize that even though they may have enjoyed the filibuster in 2009-2010, the extremely cumbersome nature of the American political process will make it forever impossible to enact these kind of sweeping cuts in the United States.

From where I sit, the system they have in the UK where you can simply sweep opposition objections aside is actually the right way to do bipartisanship. Call it bipartisanship by alternation. When Labour wins the election, Labour has the chance to implement a bold agenda creating and expanding programs in a way that they think will make Britain a better place to live. Then when the Tories come in, they’re able to be brutal in their efforts to pare back or eliminate things that they think aren’t working. Over the long term, you get a trajectory where programs survive if and only if they’re so widely regarded as successful that no mainstream party would dare abolish them.

The Tea Party may be clamoring for “less,” but without structural changes to the way government works it is pretty much impossible to imagine a scenario in which spending is so significantly pared back in this country. The filibuster is good for one thing: preserving the status quo. But what good is that if the status quo is unsustainable?

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8 Comments

  1. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    I’ve often wished in the middle of a failed or struggling administration that we had a parliamentary system. But we probably don’t have the patience for it, we’d be throwing the bums out every two weeks.

  2. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    I’ll be more impressed with Yglesias’s position if the GOP takes back both houses next month. If he still says “hey, the majority should rule and sweep aside objections” when it’s a Democrat filibuster preventing the passage of health-care repeal, I’ll take him seriously.

    Frankly, after about 40 years of watching politics — yes, I was a 15 year old political junkie — I’ve seen too many occasions on which the the filibuster was reviled by the side in power, then admired as the foundation of democracy after a change in who chairs the committee, to not be deeply cynical.

  3. Randy said,

    I agree with Charlie that Yglesias will probably change his tune should the GOP gain a majority, but it might take the election of a GOP President along with a GOP Congress before we witness a complete transformation.

    As Charlie says, both parties decry the power of the filibuster when they are in the majority. Surely no one has forgotten the relatively recent GOP threat to use the”nuclear option” when they couldn’t get their way in the Senate, and the impassioned Democratic Party leaders’ responses, or have they? ;-)

    I think the filibuster will play a major part, however, in making it almost impossible to undo the health care legislation passed this year, even if Obama is not re-elected in 2012. (BWDIK?)

  4. Maxwell James said,

    I agree with Charlie that Yglesias will probably change his tune should the GOP gain a majority,

    Well, Yglesias has been writing online for a while, so that’s a researchable question. Looks like he’s consistent on this topic – although I think he overrates the net value to the Democrats. It’s very true that the filibuster means that no major welfare legislation is ever likely to be reversed, at least not without the courts stepping in.

  5. wj said,

    Of course there is a down-side to the “let the majority run amok” approach. Especially when the major parties become polarized, you can be looking at whipsaw, as each comes in and totally reverses what the other did.

    This has a couple of (unintended) consequences:
    1) It creates massive uncertainty as to what the rules will be in the future. Which is a great way to persuade anyone considering investing stop and take another look. Why invest in something that takes more than a few months to pay off if it may be trashed by the next election?
    2) Any time you have massive changes in government policy (tweaks are bad enough) you are looking at a lot of government employees spending an enormous amount of time working out what the new policy requires and then what actual rules must be created to implement them. Then more time on creating the procedures, and training everybody on what to do. If you thought government was inefficient now….

    Now if we had two parties with pretty similar, if distinct, views of the world, Yglesias’ approach might work pretty well. As in the UK. But in the current political climate in the US, it seems likely to be even worse than the current mess. Not to say that we don’t need to make changes, just that I am dubious that this is the solution.

  6. Icepick said,

    It creates massive uncertainty as to what the rules will be in the future.

    -and-

    Any time you have massive changes in government policy (tweaks are bad enough) you are looking at a lot of government employees spending an enormous amount of time working out what the new policy requires and then what actual rules must be created to implement them.

    Um. aren’t we getting all of that right now?

  7. Maxwell James said,

    wj, I agree that too much regulatory uncertainty can be a problem. But Icepick is right – we have plenty of that right now, and indeed have had it for quite some time. Arguably more so than most European countries do.

    Moreover, as long as we have massive deficits I’d argue that we’ll see increased uncertainty no matter what, because there will be constant grappling over how to solve them – but with no possibility of resolution until the barriers to change are lowered somewhat. Since our politics tends to reward politicians who increase spending and decrease taxes, I’d argue that the filibuster actually aids and abets such short-term thinking.

    I believe in using government to achieve universal health insurance. But we have to have a way to pare back expensive entitlements that do not work, and that doesn’t ever seem likely given both a high level of partisanship and the easy and frequent use of a minority veto. Personally, I’d be more than willing to risk the future of the ACA for such a trade.

  8. wj said,

    “…aren’t we getting all of that right now?”

    I think actually what we are getting is a pale glimmer — from those tweaks I mentioned. Yes, there is currently some uncertainty. And it feels like “a lot of uncertainty,” because it is substantially more than we are accustomed to. But it is substantially less than I think we would get under a parliamentary systems with our current level of polarization.

    And, if I’m right about that, the economic impacts would be substantially greater as well. Which is not something that I would be enthused about risking.

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