In my post yesterday about economic inequality, I emphasized the political economy aspects of inequality — how extreme economic inequality creates a dysfunctional democracy that caters to the interests of wealthy elites but neglects the concerns of ordinary people. I mentioned, for example, Larry Bartels’ research, which found that senators are far more responsive to the concerns of affluent constituents than to those of poor and middle-class voters. Economic inequality has made Americans’ political representation more unequal, which in turn has the effect of enacting policies which worsen economic inequality. And so it goes.

That’s the pattern, but many questions remain about the specific pathways that have enabled this pattern. The other day over at the Monkey Cage blog, political scientist John Sides wrote about a fascinating study that that identifies one of the culprits: the filibuster.

To back up a little bit — a team of political scientists had a theory: that one of the most important drivers of economic inequality is what is known as “status quo bias.” The idea is that the government could pass legislation to ameliorate economic inequality if it choose to do so, and that therefore, more Congressional do-nothingism would be associated with rising economic inequality.

For their study, the authors looked at data from 1940 to 2006, and examined two indicators of Congressional inaction. One indicator measured how much policy output Congress creates per year, and the other measured the strength of the filibuster. They calculated the impact of the filibuster by quantifying “the ideological difference between the average Senator and the Senator estimated to provide the crucial vote to overcome a filibuster” (the measure is known in the literature as the “filibuster pivot”). Their hypothesis was that a strong filibuster and low levels of Congressional output would be associated with rising economic inequality.

That hypothesis proved correct. See the graphs in Sides’ post; the patterns are quite striking. Even when they controlled for other factors related to inequality, such as marginal tax rates and financial deregulation, their hypothesis held.

The authors’ findings suggest that simply getting rid of the filibuster would lead to less inequality. But of course, it’s more complicated than that. Democrats recently reformed the filibuster (its use in votes for presidential appointments is now restricted), but enacting more serious filibuster reforms will be a challenge. A major obstacle to filibuster reform is that each senator has an an individual incentive to keep the filibuster, because having the ability to strategically deploy it increases her political power– even if it may hurt her party overall.

Moreover, as one of the paper’s authors points out, in America, we have an entire political system and policymaking apparatus that is “biased toward stasis.” Just look how at how many obstacles the ACA has had to go through: first, many Congressional hearings, committee and subcommittee votes; then separate votes to pass the bill in the House and Senate, followed by reconciliation; then the president signing the bill; after that, many court challenges, which continue; and now, as it’s being implemented, potential political obstacles in the states as well.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Electoral College and the U.S. senate are countermajoritarian institutions which confer disproportionate power on small, sparsely populated states. Parliamentary-style democracies generally don’t have nearly as many countermajoritarian institutions and veto points, which is one reason why it’s much easier to enact legislation in those systems — and much harder here.

Nathan Kelly, one of the paper’s authors, recently had this to say:

Only the very rich benefit from today’s anti-majoritarian, gridlocked government. The recent [filibuster] reforms merely scratch the surface of what would be needed to overcome policy gridlock and enhance the likelihood of egalitarian policy change.

Anybody in the mood for scrapping the Constitution and starting all over again?

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Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee