While it may seem a strange way to conduct business, the filibuster within the Senate has existed as a procedure since 1806. It originated seemingly accidentally as an unforeseen consequence of a simple rules change, and has in one form or another regulated the legislative process ever since.
It has a much longer history; the first recorded filibuster was by Cato in the Roman Senate, opposing one of Caesar’s proposals in 60 B.C. However, the weight of tradition alone is insufficient to maintain this tool; one of McConnell’s unlauded triumphs was its preservation in the rules of the present Congress by passive opposition to the transfer of Senate leadership until language defining and guaranteeing it was inserted into the agreement. Otherwise, it may have been ended immediately with the convening of the new Senate — and it may well be again in 2022.
What is for us to consider rather is whether this tool is valuable enough to preserve, or instead fully deserves to be discarded as a relic of a long-outmoded past.
It would be pleasant to recall a time when each bill was considered, statesmanlike, on its own merits; it would be nice to be able to think of a point in our history when laws were passed based on their effectiveness at solving the social problems they were aimed at rather than for partisan, regional, or personal victory. Much of the activity in the House is showmanship: meaningless bills are proposed in order to create a pretense of action, just as the Senate postures and obstructs in order to justify their existence. They know full well that there’s not much of any real use that could actually be accomplished by government, so instead they’re getting themselves set up for the next election.
Against this backdrop, the filibuster is not merely a parliamentary roadblock on the path to progress but rather an essential tool of governance — or, rather, non-governance; it permits Congress to continue to pretend to act where the alternative would be to create legislative pseudo-solutions that wouldn’t work. Add to this that its continuance is guaranteed by the rules under which Congress has convened and that it’s impracticable to attempt to end it before 2022 anyway, and it soon becomes apparent that any discussion about its removal is yet another distraction. Much like the Electoral College, it cannot be eliminated easily, so it becomes a talking point to be used only for partisan division and the inevitable rounds of fundraising to follow.
There does exist a very real danger, however, that the filibuster might be ended with the next Senate. One might imagine the immediate results would be sufficient justification — we’d edge closer to universal healthcare, someone would introduce common sense gun control, DC may become a state — and yet this would be in error. Not only will these things not happen, even if they did Congress could simply reverse them next session by a simple majority vote.
Let’s not get distracted by why it won’t happen (not nearly enough doctors, no such thing as common sense gun control, DC statehood will require a new SCOTUS or a constitutional amendment -Ed.) and instead focus on the problem of an unfettered majoritocracy. When a bare majority has the power to pass legislation without any input from the opposition, it will be required by its electorate to take action at every crisis. Unfortunately, much though we might wish otherwise, there is no simple legislation that will solve our immigration problems, end poverty, or fix most of the myriad complex ills that beset modern society. The very best we could manage would be the creation of a semi-permanent lock on power by one party over the other, followed by an inevitable period of disillusionment once society realizes how ineffective they are.
(If we’re lucky, that is. A worse, yet likelier, scenario would have a highly efficient, effective government with ever-harsher laws and ever-decreasing freedom — for our safety, of course. Remember: Service Guarantees Citizenship!)
There is an ideal we might pursue: We could work toward the creation of moderate groups within both houses of Congress who are willing to discuss issues without regard to the party line. That way, rather than facing the choice between no minimum wage increase and one which might well cause chaos in the poorer states, there would be at least a possibility of a reasonable increase in the federal wage, perhaps one automatically linked to inflation and tied to regional cost-of-living numbers. That way, we could stop having the discussion at all, because that one problem would be permanently solved. We could then devote some time to asking ourselves why Mississippi and Maine are both so impoverished they can’t afford an increase in the state wage, and working to directly correct the underlying conditions that promote poverty instead of slapping Band-Aids over the symptoms.
Instead, I forecast we’ll continue to polarize, vilifying the few surviving moderates until our politics achieve a state of perpetual, unsolvable, deadlocked crisis — one which maximizes political donations while minimizing social change.
“When in doubt, predict the present trend will continue.” – Murphy, Law #22
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