Official Washington’s conventional wisdom about the Senate filibuster is a fairy tale. It is utterly unmoored from the choices being made by individual senators, party caucuses, and the body as a whole. Every person who has ever told you that the mean, nasty, outdated legislative filibuster is the source of Senate gridlock and the obstacle to common-sense legislating in Congress has either swallowed, or is peddling, a lie.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post this week, Ethics and Public Policy Center scholar Henry Olsen suggests requiring filibusters to be at least nominally bipartisan as a way of solving the familiar filibuster “problem.” What follows is not a fisking of Olsen, who is a good guy and perhaps the best electoral analyst in America today, but a corrective to the apparently universal pundit-class misunderstanding about what’s really going on inside “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
The mistake everyone makes is looking at Senate inaction and asking, “How can we change Senate rules so it can start legislating again?” The better question is, “Why did the Senate stop legislating in the first place?”
The answer isn’t “gridlock,” any more than “a car” drove through that parade in Wisconsin. Somewhere along the way, senators’ behavior changed. It’s not a coincidence this happened along the same timeline as the polarization of the parties over the last 30 years. Partisan filibusters were harder, and bipartisan legislating easier when the Senate had dozens of conservative-leaning Democrats and liberal-leaning Republicans.
An Interlude on Polarization
Before moving inside the chamber, let’s take stock of an important but easily overlooked point: Senate Democrats as a group are much farther left than they were in, say, 1990, and Senate Republicans are more uniformly conservative.
Because pundits and people who read them tend to be consistent ideologues themselves, this kind of polarization seems normal, even enlightened. But all it really means is that both parties in the Senate have drifted away from—abandoned, even—the middle of the country.
The public didn’t lurch left or right. Senate rules didn’t change. Congress is simply less representative of the American people than it used to be. Pew’s well-worn ideological scatter chart from the 2016 election exit polls illustrates the point below.
The sweet spot in American politics would seem to be left-but-not-too-left-of-center on economic issues and right-but-not-too-right-of-center on cultural issues. (I’m conservative on both, for whatever it’s worth.) But today, congressmen and senators tend toward the upper-right or lower-left—the ideological extremes—with elite journalists overrepresented in the nearly empty lower-right: woke private-school parents.
The strike zone for both parties looking to forge a majority, then, should be the upper-left. This would be your pro-lifers for universal health care, men who want only their unions to build the border wall, women who want to raise taxes to build more prisons for pornographers and drug dealers. Such people—real, live, working-class moderates, the sort who decide our national elections—are thin on the ground in Washington, D.C. Indeed, they seem downright unwelcome in both parties.
Nuking the filibuster to establish a majoritarian Senate, in the context of our actual country, would only empower out-of-touch, unpopular, ideological extremists to unilaterally impose their outré elite values on a public that dislikes them. Constitutionally speaking, in the morality play of congressional politics today, the filibuster is the good guy. It’s not the hero we deserve, but the one we need, stopping Republicans from gutting social programs and Democrats from banning guns or red meat.
Whence Gridlock Comes
So, if the Senate’s rules aren’t the cause of Senate inertia, what is? Snarky Washingtonians will say “Republicans.” But that’s silly. Both sides take up the others’ tactics whenever the Senate changes hands. Gridlock is not an external force exerted on the Senate.
Nor is gridlock a condition imposed on it by an uncooperative minority. No, inaction is always a policy choice affirmatively, consciously taken by the majority. “Gridlock” and “obstruction” are weasel words Senate majorities use to duck responsibility for their own decisions.
Contrary to beltway shorthand, passing bills through the Senate doesn’t require bipartisan compromise. It just requires compromise, full stop. There’s a difference. Sixty-vote majorities could be found on almost any issue, any week of any year, through an open amendment process on the Senate floor. Heck, they could call up a blank bill for floor consideration, and let every Senator offer whatever amendment he or she wanted, and before too long, a final bill that could get 60 votes would emerge.
Both parties know this, and refuse to do it. Why? Because an open amendment process—“the wild west,” they call it—would force senators to take amendment votes that would, quelle horreur, lay bare their actual beliefs and policy priorities to their constituents.
That’s it. That’s the whole story of Senate “gridlock.” Not the filibuster, not cloture, not grandstanding, not Donald Trump or “norms,” or “obstruction” or any other nonsense you’ve been told.
At the end of the day, senators care more about protecting themselves and their colleagues from unpredictable, inconvenient floor votes than they do about passing legislation. This, and no other reason, is why both parties now legislate via secret negotiations, followed by an obnoxious, rigged floor process (“filling the tree”) that blocks all amendments except the ones mutually agreed to by the party leaders.
Remember, the amendments this process blocks are not the ones that wouldn’t pass, but the ones that would. Most Democratic senators don’t want to have to vote on popular Republican amendments to, say, curb immigration or protect gun rights. Likewise, most GOP senators don’t want to have to defend a vote against a higher minimum wage or increased spending for children’s health care.
All kinds of bills and amendments could get 60 votes in the Senate today. The problem is, they would be the wrong 60 votes—majorities representing the public as such instead of their party. When the dust settled, lots of incumbents on both sides would invite dangerous primary or general election challengers next time they faced the voters.
A good example of such a bill is the Higher Wages for American Workers Act, introduced by Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark. It would raise the federal minimum wage to $10 and mandate the “E-Verify” instant immigration-status test for all employers.
To normal Americans, this might sound like a sensible compromise; to Washington insiders, it’s a five-alarm fire. It would be a brutal floor vote, triggering dozens of Club for Growth- or Squad-backed primary challenges and crippling TV ads come November.
If Senate leaders ever opened up the floor, that’s the kind of legislation senators would face: popular, cross-partisan, and career-threatening. Party leaders—always at the behest of their constituents, the senators themselves—see their job as never letting an organic, unchoreographed, cross-partisan majority work its will on the floor on behalf of the American people.
Instead, majorities negotiate bills to get all of their team’s votes plus just enough of the other team’s to pass maximally partisan legislation. To leaders, this is a correct 60-vote majority that, with proper supervision and stage direction, may be permitted to pass bills through the United States Senate.
What’s Really Going On
Ultimately, Senate majorities do not see gridlock as a frustrating, inferior alternative to passing legislation. They see it as a superior alternative to the transparency and accountability that comes with discharging their constitutional responsibilities.
Not convinced? When was the last time you saw a Senate majority of either party really put their shoulder to the wheel to break a partisan filibuster? I don’t mean whining to cable news or talk radio. I mean work: staying in session all night, for days on end, forcing late night attendance, including the sick old men, the cancellation of weekend plans, missing piano recitals and family weddings? Never.
If Senate majorities really want to pass legislation, they could, anytime, through a combination of compromise, transparency, and the exertion of physical energy. This approach has not been tried and found wanting, but found inconvenient and left untried.
Finally, those on the left who think a post-filibuster Senate would help their cause are really missing the forest for the trees here. Senate Democrats are never going to nuke the filibuster to “enshrine Roe’s protections” in federal law, as New York Times columnist Ezra Klein proposed on Twitter yesterday—not because they are weak or deferential to norms, but because Roe is really, really undemocratic.
Even without a red wave election, Klein’s Roe Act would quickly be watered down to a restrictive bipartisan compromise he would hate. And when the next red wave did come, the Democratic Party would be left limping for a generation.
The vast majority of federal policies today rendered untouchable by the Senate’s 60-vote cloture threshold was written between the 1930s and 1960s when even Republicans were proud liberals. Are three years of Roe-lite or some half-baked Green New Deal ramp-up really worth giving President Ron DeSantis, House Speaker Jim Jordan, and Senate Majority Leader Ted Cruz free-rein to rewrite the Great Society and New Deal, the APA, the NLRB, NEPA, civil service, education, and immigration law in one swing?
They would decentralize and defund dozens of power centers within the progressive movement. The left has unimaginably more to lose from a majoritarian Senate than the right.
As a conservative who would welcome lots of those reforms, I nonetheless recognize that our system is built for consensus and stability. In America, it’s ideologues like Klein and me who are the weirdos, not the majority of the country with supposedly less consistent views. It’s good that we never have too much power.
At any given moment, both parties are advancing, on different issues, popular and unpopular ideas. The way the Senate is designed to work is, the popular ideas get creatively cobbled together and passed as consensus compromises. And the unpopular ideas are discarded as slogans for the performance artists in the House.
The only reason this doesn’t happen today is that senators’ real, if unstated, top priorities are personal convenience and partisan positioning. Passing major legislation is a distant second or third. What we see on C-Span2 every day is the majority applying minimal-to-modest effort to pass legislation, and maximal effort to protect their seats and undermine the other side.
The Senate’s rules do not stop it from legislating. It’s the senators themselves, entitled and vain, cowering in the shadows behind the one thing in Washington with the courage to stand up for all of us, simultaneously against the mob and the elite. The filibuster isn’t our hero. It’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.