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Why Washington Loves The Filibuster

The ability of a minority in the Senate to prevent the federal government from dealing with pressing national problems -- or even to staff the executive branch -- is so glaring that few people, outside of partisan Republicans, can deny that there's a problem. Unfortunately, much of official Washington remains unable to recognize the nature of the problem. The problem is that the minority party has a strong political incentive to block the majority's agenda and render the president a failure, and the filibuster gives it the incentive to do so. Official Washington, by contrast, defines the problem as members of the two parties failing to treat each other nicely enough. Here's Chris Dodd, son of a Senator and establishment man to his bones:

I totally oppose the idea of changing filibuster rules," Dodd said during an appearance on MSNBC. "That's foolish, in my view." ...
Dodd said that changing filibuster rules wouldn't do much to change a culture of incivility he said had crept into the Senate.
"There's nothing wrong with partisanship. We've got to get over this notion that there's something evil about partisanship," the Connecticut senator said. "It's the lack of civility."

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post wrote a column a few weeks ago defending the filibuster. It's a useful window into the mentality:

The most trenchant criticism of the filibuster is its overuse. The Senate has become a body that requires 60 votes to get out of bed in the morning. This degree of gridlock was not intended. "From its earliest incarnation," congressional scholar Norman Ornstein notes, "the filibuster was generally reserved for issues of great national importance, employed by one or more senators who were passionate enough about something that they would bring the entire body to a halt." No more. Cloture motions -- the device used to end a filibuster -- were once a rarity. Now they are routine. The biggest spike has come since Republicans became the minority party in 2007, with a record 139 cloture motions in the last Congress. The current Congress is on a course to match that.
A more polarized Senate, with almost no ideological overlap between the parties, has accompanied, and most likely produced, a more fractious process. Changing the rules would treat one symptom -- delay and gridlock -- at the cost of exacerbating the underlying disease: excessive partisanship and ideological extremism.

What's lacking from this account is any realistic proposal for reversing this trend. Indeed, in her column today, Marcus suggests that she thinks things will get worse, not better:

The realist in me watches the fervent Tea Partiers, tugging the Republican Party even further to the right, and the Republican congressional leadership, reaping the short-term rewards of obstruction -- and worries.
"What I think Evan has been trying to communicate is that politics cannot be seen as a zero-sum game where one side wipes the floor with the other side," Wyden told me.

Except politics is a zero-sum game. The transparently false headline of Marcus's column, "Both parties lose as Bayh leaves," reveals how false that is. Democrats lost from Bayh's retirement and Republicans won, which is why they're celebrating.

Now, public policy isn't a zero sum game. But to expect politicians to put aside their political interests for the good of the country is wildly unrealistic. A well-designed system is supposed to align politicians' interests with the greater good, to the highest degree that's possible. The best way to do that is to give the majority the power to implement its agenda in the belief that this agenda will create positive real-world conditions that the voters choose to reward it with continued support. You can't count on the minority party to lay down its most powerful weapon so that the majority party can rack up bipartisan achievements.

The belief that the filibuster is okay, but minority parties should just use it less often and start acting nicer is the equivalent of the belief that the financial system was totally fine, there just needs to be less greed and more caution. Of course, there are people on Wall Street who believe that, too -- you don't need to change the incentive structure that rewards taking on systemic risk, they say, you just need people to listen to their better angels. This sort of misguided notion is probably endemic to people who sit on the inside of any institution and see it in personal rather than systemic terms. The belief among official Washington that moral restraint can persuade politicians from ignoring their political interests is exactly such a fallacy.

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