Why eliminating the filibuster altogether would matter less than you think

[Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from New York University-Abu Dhabi political scientist Adam Ramey.]

After years of threats from the leadership of both parties going back (at least) to the George W. Bush administration, the Senate Majority leader finally “went nuclear” Thursday. From now on, at least until the next rule change, executive branch nominees to every position save the Supreme Court can no longer be filibustered. That is to say, a simple majority will suffice to confirm President Obama’s nominations. The ripple effects of this decision are already emerging, with some news outlets noting that limiting the filibuster will allow Obama to “accomplish key second-term priorities.”

For me, the most interesting question about the filibuster has been not why it happens or how its use has changed, but rather what effect would it have if it were changed. All of the current debate about the filibuster has focused on how it is a central cause of the “brokenness” in Washington. Indeed, defenders of Sen. Harry Reid’s move will probably hail this as a major step toward solving the problem of gridlock in Washington.

But will it actually change anything? Sure, limiting the filibuster will allow the vast majority of appointees to go through. That is unquestionable. However, suppose that, as some are beginning to argue, the filibuster is further minimized or perhaps eliminated altogether. Would that solve Washington’s problems?

The short answer is probably not. If anything, the effect would be, at best, minimal.

How can we be sure? At a theoretical level, a number of political scientists (Keith Krehbiel, Craig Volden, David Brady, George Tsebelis and many  others) have long recognized that the more individuals there are with a veto in the legislative process, the harder it is to get legislation passed. While removing the filibuster would remove one veto actor, the reality is that for legislation to pass, the House, the Senate and the president must all agree. When government is divided, as it is now, getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t change the fact that the House will (almost) never agree to something with the Senate that Obama would also be willing to sign in to law.

Okay, but what would be the practical impact of jettisoning the filibuster? Since it would alleviate gridlock a bit, what would that mean for legislative productivity in Washington? To answer that question, I performed a modified replication of an important piece by Monkey Cage-contributor (and my undergraduate adviser) Sarah Binder. In that paper, Binder sought to examine the effect of gridlock on the percentage of laws that were enacted, out of the total number proposed. The idea is that less gridlock should lead to more laws being enacted.

To see the practical effects of ditching the filibuster on the percentage of laws enacted, I conducted a thought experiment. Let’s look back in time all the way to the 1950s  –the 84th Congress, to be exact. Now, based on the model I ran, I can take the level of gridlock in the 84th Congress and predict the percentage of laws enacted. However, I can also calculate a level of hypothetical gridlock had the filibuster not existed and then see what the legislative output would have been. Since all statistical models have uncertainty (just as polls have a margin of error), I conducted this thought experiment across all congresses from the 84th to the 106th (1955-2001) and repeated each simulation 1,000 times. The results are in the graph below.

red lines are predicted legislative productivity based on the “real” world with the filibuster, while blue lines are predictions based on a world without the filibuster. (Figure: Adam Ramey/The Monkey Cage)
Red lines are predicted legislative productivity based on the “real” world with the filibuster, while blue lines are predictions based on a world without the filibuster. (Figure: Adam Ramey/The Monkey Cage)

The red lines are predictions based on the “real world” level of gridlock. The blue lines are predictions from a universe without a filibuster. The darkened lines for both are the averages across the 1,000 simulations and the light lines are each of the individual simulations.

What can we conclude from this? First, we may conclude that, on average, there is a higher percentage of laws enacted when there is no filibustering allowed (the dark blue line is always above the dark red one). Second, and more important: The differences are not statistically distinguishable. We can see that all of the light blue and light red lines are constantly overlapping. That means in several simulations the red line is actually above the blue one. If there were a clear pattern, nearly all of the blue lines would be above all of the red ones. This is clearly not true.*

Alas, we cannot reasonably conclude that removing the filibuster will solve all of Washington’s problems. Indeed, so long as we have divided government, removing the filibuster will change little.

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*For the more technically inclined, the 95 percent credible intervals for the simulated models overlap for every legislative session considered.

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Erik Voeten · November 23, 2013