It’s not just the filibuster

IT’S NOT JUST THE FILIBUSTER…. Not that we needed any reminders, this week offered several new examples to reinforce what has been apparent for a while: the Senate doesn’t work, and its inability to function as a legislative body is seriously undermining the strength of the country.

If this were just about filibusters, it’d be easier to understand (and explain). But Ezra Klein had a very smart item yesterday on the role of unanimous consent requirements for routine institutional functions, making it possible for a lone senator to effectively shut down proceedings. The dynamic “creates a dangerous incentive for individual senators: Given that the Senate cannot function without their consent, their consent has a lot of value. And that value can be traded for things they want.”

There’s always been a certain amount of this stuff in the Senate, but in recent years, both individual obstruction, as manifested through holds, and team obstruction, as manifested through the filibuster, are getting worse…. As this behavior normalizes, everyone will do it. The Democrats will filibuster everything Republicans attempt. Individual senators will place larger holds more frequently in an attempt to get their way, get some media, or both. And if everyone does it, the Senate falls apart.

On some level, the Senate has always been riven by a collective action problem. If the individual senators and the two parties use the rules in the way that are rational for them, the chamber can’t function. But there’ve been norms that held both sides, and most senators, in check. As those norms dissolve and the payoffs of obstruction become clearer to everyone, the collective restraint that allowed the Senate to function breaks down.

Several months ago, Paul Krugman had a column on 18th-century Poland, which had a legislature, the Sejm, that allowed a single member to block literally anything with a single objection. Krugman noted, “This made the nation largely ungovernable, and neighboring regimes began hacking off pieces of its territory. By 1795 Poland had disappeared, not to re-emerge for more than a century.”

As should be evident after this week, the U.S. Senate is moving quickly in the Sejm’s direction.

Matt Yglesias added the other day that “it’s worth observing that according to Hamilton & Madison, a Polish-style national legislation is precisely what they’re trying to avoid.”

The American system, in other words, wasn’t designed to work this way. It can’t work this way. And when the Senate fails to function as a legislative body, the country’s ability to compete, thrive, and respond to challenges effectively disappears.

The status quo is simply untenable.