Filibuster Flaws: Twisting the Rubik's Cube


As has been often remarked on, the Senate is controlled by a procedural rule known as the filibuster which can, if wielded effectively, result in a de-facto 60-vote requirement to get things passed.

Many people have complained about this due to the fact it is anti-majoritarian. There is something to this criticism. Monarchies were bad for many reasons, but one was that the wishes of the people could be silenced by the elites, in this case, by one ultra-elite: the monarch.

With a system requring 60 votes to pass new legislation, the minority of senators that represents that status quo on some issue gets to ignore the will of a majority of their colleagues. Pretend there is some law, and 55 senators want to change it; the filibuster allows the other 45 to ignore this desire. It gives this group of 45 senators extra legislative power. And, as I said before, if majoritarianism is a value, then the filibuster surely offends against it.

Unfortunately, this case against the filibuster is not as strong as it first appears. For example, see this important article which argues that the filibuster, though used by a minority of senators, often works on behalf of a majority of the Americans that the senators represent (due to the disproportionate size of populations and states).

But, put majoritarianism aside. I reviewed the debate about it just for completeness. What I want to suggest is that there is another problem with the filibuster, which is that it dilutes the power of an otherwise important democratic tool: retirement.

To see this argument, first read this article, which makes the plausible point that senators who retire care less about what their constituents think is good and more about what they think is actually good. Since they will never run for office again, they are essentially torn loose from normal democratic constraints - they don't have to listen to the people in their district because what can the people do, not vote for them again? Such retirees (for lack of a better word) are free to pursue a legacy.

Now, I don't think that politicians actually pander that much. I think they usually try to do what they think is the best option for America (though often I think they are wrong), but there are clearly cases where the incentives to pander are enormous. One example might be issues that have long time horizons. Even a politician who thinks global warming needs to be addressed might think that any measures would hurt his/her current constituents and so vote against such measures. Another example might be pork programs. A politician may believe, in his/her heart of hearts, that some program is wasteful, but accept it anyway, because to not accept it might invite the wrath of contituents. Again, the point is that retiring politicians can ignore these corrosive incentives. 

The rest of the argument is purely mathematical. Each year, some number of senators is retiring, and so the less votes that are needed to pass something, the more beneficial impact that those retiring senators will have. Say there are only 45 senators that are far-sighted enough to want to act on some upcoming problem (the budget for instance). If there is majority rule, then six retirements might be enough to get something down. But if 60 votes are needed, then those six retirements aren't enough.

Photo Creditcliff1066