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How the filibuster promotes partisanship

By Ezra Klein,

Perhaps it’s worth saying a little bit more about how the filibuster amplifies political polarization. After all, the conventional wisdom is that it encourages bipartisanship by giving the minority a guaranteed seat at the table.

The crucial idea here is that it is very different to kill a bill than to vote against a bill. When the minority party kills a bill, they have made the majority into a failure. And when voters perceive the majority as failing, they vote in the other guys. If you’re in the minority, there’s no faster path back to power than killing bills.

But when the minority votes against a bill that passes anyway, they have lodged an ineffectual protest rather than helped shape the law. For some senators, that’s exactly what their constituents want from them. For others, it isn’t. They’ll accept it now and again, but they don’t want to be without effective representation for long periods of time in the Senate. And so pressure builds to compromise on what can’t be killed.

In other words, it may not be the case that if minority senators couldn’t filibuster en masse, they would vote “no” en masse. Their second-best option might well be voting “yes” in exchange for various concessions.

The filibuster, of course, is what permits a united minority to kill bills. As such, it radically increases the value of holding the opposition together in a “block everything” strategy, and thus radically increases the pressure on minority senators to resist the allure of compromise. In its absence, it would both be worth less for individual minority senators to resist compromise, and worth less for their leadership to pressure them to resist compromise. Thus, compromise would become easier.

It’s also important to note that the filibuster is mainly an issue in times when one party controls the House, the Senate, and the White House. That’s not an unknown state of affairs, obviously, but it is relatively rare: In the last 30 years, there have only been eight years of unified government -- four for Democrats, and four for Republicans. That’s because, in our system, with its staggered elections, a party usually has to win a few subsequent elections to achieve unified control of the government. When they do that, it tends to mean they have an unusually strong mandate from the public.

So the question isn’t whether the majority party should be able to work its will all of the time, as is true in, say, the British system. It’s whether the majority party should be able to work its will during the few times when the public has decisively put it in charge of the government. And it seems to me that given the nature of our problems, it would be productive if the two parties had more opportunities to govern effectively and then be judged upon their results.

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