Not Exactly


Ezra Klein gets it wrong again on the filibuster:

After all, if the country wants to privatize Social Security, and it decides to vote for politicians running atop that platform, it should be able to privatize Social Security.

The problem with the filibuster isn’t so much that it enables bad outcomes so much as it makes a mockery of the democratic process. The question of the filibuster is not a partisan question and it’s not a question of outcomes. The claim for the filibuster is a claim for the preservation of the status quo — whether that status quo is liberal or conservative — against the preferences of the majority. Eliminating the filibuster is not a Democratic or a Republican goal. It’s a majoritarian goal.

This argument is both too much and not enough.

If the filibuster makes a mockery of the democratic process, simply because it requires six tenths of the vote rather than five tenths plus one, then one would have to say our country as a whole is not a democracy.  It’s a . . . something else . . . with a few democratic features.

Look at the number and centrality of the things that cannot be done by a simple majority.

Treaties can’t be ratified.  Vetoes can’t be overriden.  Presidents and other high officials can’t be removed from office.  The Constitution itself can’t be changed.  Or even ratified.  None of the rights provided therein — enumerated or reserved, individual or state — can be abridged or modified in any way whatsoever.  (And this list is just off the top of my head.)

The filibuster does not exactly stick out like an antidemocratic sore thumb, here.  Making a mockery of the democratic process is something we do a great deal of.

Does Klein want all of those antidemocratic features of our system revoked in the name of majoritarianism?  I certainly don’t.  I share Madison’s distrust of “overweening majorities,” and of the wayward passions of crowds.

I don’t think Klein wants any of that stuff changed, either.  I think he’s just made an argument without thinking it through very thoroughly.  Whatever arguments can be made for doing away with the filibuster — and I’m sure there are some — the mere fact that it’s antimajoritarian can’t be one of them.

Repeating part of Klein’s post, quoted above:

The claim for the filibuster is a claim for the preservation of the status quo

There’s no denying it has that effect.  But that’s not its only claim, or even its primary one.  Or, if it is, it’s very incompletely stated.

The claim for the filibuster is a claim for the presevation of the union, for the avoidance of civil strife, of sectional strife.  It’s true that internal peace and union are part of the status quo, but it’s equally true that they’re really, really important.  Since it’s a senate rule, it’s a claim to prevent faster moving parts of the country from completely leaving the rest behind.  Is that inherently antiprogressive?  Yes, in that it keeps progress from happening as fast as is theoretically possible.  But it also keeps progress democratic and practicable, by forcing it to be broadly shared in — not just demographically, but geographically.

Progress isn’t the only thing a nation-state should be interested in.  It’s incomplete.  Progress together is what a nation-state needs, especially one as large — in every sense — as America, and as diverse.  Otherwise, progress just means gradual balkanization.

The claim for the filibuster is also, as noted above, a claim against hasty, ill-considered actions by overheated majorities (aka, mobs).

Is it true that, in putting up a barrier on that front, the filibuster opens us up for ill-considered actions by overheated minorities (aka, obstructionists)?  Absolutely.  That’s why I favor reforms that put some limits on use of the filibuster.  It might be as simple as limiting the number of times it can be invoked per congressional session (though I haven’t thought through the implications of that approach).  What I don’t favor, though, is doing away with the filibuster altogether.

Minorities shouldn’t be able to block everything.  They shouldn’t even be able to block most things.  But they should be able to block something every now and then (or at least slow things down, since a filibuster can be overriden), when it’s really really important to them.

The answer to the problem of the filibuster isn’t a ban.  It is proper pricing.

Filibustering should be expensive.  Right now, it’s free: free in the sense of costing nothing to consume, and free in the sense of being available in infinite quantity.  Both of those have to change.  People in leadership roles have to raise the cost of consumption, as I’ve argued before.  And the rule itself needs to change to limit supply.

Make it expensive and you fix the problem.  Make it extinct and you just trade one problem for another.



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