Though I'm as frustrated by what the Senate has done to vitiate health reform as the next progressive guy, Ross Douthat makes some compelling arguments in favor of keeping a selective use of the filibuster:
While liberal pundits — and a few liberal Senators — crusade against the filibuster, Jay Cost rises to its defense. His argument turns the usual case against the filibuster on its head: While critics charge that the rise of filibustering is the fruit of a poisonous polarization, Cost argues that supermajority requirements are actually our best protection against polarization run amok. The filibuster “is indeed an obstructionist tool,” he writes, “but it is also a way to promote moderate policies, even as the parties have become more ideologically extreme.” In the absence of a filibuster, a polarized political system would produce wild policymaking swings, with Al Franken writing legislation one session and Jim DeMint writing it the next. Its presence requires even the most ideologically-charged majority to cut some deals before it rams legislation through. If we “get rid of the filibuster to facilitate legislative policymaking,” Cost concludes, “we should brace ourselves for ideologically polarizing laws that will leave a third to a half of the country deeply unsatisfied.”
I’m of several minds on this issue. On the one hand, Cost is right that the major consequence of increased filibustering to date has been legislation tailored to the concerns of centrist Senators, rather than no legislation at all. The Bush tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, and Medicare Part D all passed with Senate supermajorities, and the Bush-era legislative pushes that failed — Social Security reform and immigration reform chief among them — did so because lots of Senators decided they weren’t interested in voting for them, not because the bills got 58 votes but couldn’t get 60. In the Obama era, meanwhile, the Senate has already voted to pass the most expensive stimulus package in history, a sweeping reorganization of the American health care system, and a host of more modest legislative initiatives. In this environment, there’s something a little strange about the stridency of liberal complaints about the filibuster, given what they’ve accomplished — and are on the cusp of accomplishing — even with it as an impediment.
That said, using the filbuster to spike judicial nominees (as Democrats did in the Bush era) or to hold up routine votes (as the Republicans are doing now) does strike me as much more problematic than using it to shape or halt expensive new entitlement programs. And on a broader level, I’m more sympathetic than many conservatives to liberal complaints about America’s growing ungovernability. Unlike the left, I’m not worried about a liberal Congress’s inability to pass a public option — but I am worried that our political culture is ill-equipped to deal with the looming gulf between our projected revenues and our spending commitments.
Note that most of the bills listed above attracted supermajority support while either cutting taxes or hiking spending. (The pending health care legislation promises to pay for itself, but everyone, from the CBO on down, is taking that promise with a substantial grain of salt.) This trend can’t continue: In the next decade or so, we’ll need to either raise taxes, cut spending, or both, or else the American future will resemble the Californian present. And anyone who thinks that Congress is ready to make those kind of hard choices hasn’t been paying attention to our politics lately.
The question, though, is whether the filibuster, specifically, is really a major threat to America’s long-term solvency.
The Republican aversion to tax hikes and the Democratic refusal to contemplate trimming Social Security and Medicare (unless the extra dollars are used to fund a new entitlement, that is) aren’t just a manifestation of crazy polarization: They’re rational responses to American public opinion, which is extremely tax averse and extremely protective toward entitlement spending all at once. This means that unless Americans suddenly turn extraordinarily self-sacrificial, you’re never going to persuade vulnerable legislators to join a party-line vote to, say, implement a VAT (if they’re Democrats) or means-test Social Security (if they’re Republicans). We’ll get fiscal responsibility through a bipartisan compromise, engineered by centrists in both parties and capable of getting 65-70 votes, or else we won’t get it at all. We may need a better class of centrist to make such a compromise possible — but we probably don’t need to abolish the filibuster along the way.