Filibustering and Partisanship in the Senate

by Gregory Koger on March 2, 2012 · 4 comments

in Legislative Politics,Senate procedure

Wednesday, Ezra Klein suggested that the filibuster “promotes partisanship.” How? Currently the filibuster enables the minority party to block legislative initiatives—even those they have supported in the recent past—to deny the majority party the political benefits of legislative success. Take away (or diminish, or restrict) the right to filibuster, and (some) minority party members will negotiate for policy compromises rather than simply oppose legislation that is certain to pass.

Let us state this claim as preference orderings.  So let’s assume there are some moderates within the minority party, or “squishes”, and diehard partisans, aka “zealots.” And there might even be a few “country first” statesmen.

Statesman: compromise > block > symbolic opposition

Squish:  block > compromise > symbolic opposition

Zealot: block > symbolic opposition > compromise

So, if one is frustrated by the blocking strategy of the minority party, one can pine for enough dealmaking statesmen (and stateswomen) to invoke cloture, but they are mostly gone and fast disappearing. Second-best, Ezra suggests, is to unleash the squishes by taking away the blocking strategy. Then the squishes and the majority party can make grand bargains and the Senate will work again.

What’s missing from this story?  The majority party. As Matt Glassman points out, we already have a chamber of Congress in which compromise and bipartisanship thrive without filibustering to get in the way. It’s the U.S. House, and it’s a war zone. Over the last three decades, the majority party in the House (under both Republicans and Democrats) has grown increasingly draconian in its tolerance of amendments and debate. Major legislation routinely passes with a few hours of debate and a single vote—if any—on an attempt to amend the bill. There is plenty of bargaining, but it occurs within the majority party; by the time a bill reaches the floor, the members of the minority party—statesmen, squishes, and zealots alike—face a simple choice whether to endorse the majority’s proposal or not. And, excluded from the deliberations that produced the bill, the answer is typically “not”, just on principle.

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