The elegant paradox of the filibuster

or Why the Republicans always get their way and why it is bad for America

Xtreme Violet,

Unlike yesterday, today I have an actual serious political economy problem gnawing at me. I don’t think I’m overselling the problem when I say it’s the single most troubling dilemma in American politics. I’m talking, of course, about the problem of the filibuster and accountability.

The problem is as follows: (a) Given the filibuster rule in the Senate, the minority party may choose to allow or block majority party policy, so long as the majority does not exceed 59 seats [1]. This would be not such a problem if the following were not true: (b) the majority party is held solely responsible for policy enacted or not enacted [2].

Given (a) and (b), it follows that the minority party not only (c) controls what policy is enacted [3], but also that they (d) benefit from bad policy. Therefore it is in the interest of the minority to allow bad policy to proceed and to block good policy.

Allow me to get on my normative high-horse here and say: This is an incredibly bad institutional arrangement.

But further, consider this thought experiment. Let’s assume (as I think we both believe), that (e) Republicans favor bad policy and (f) Democrats favor good policy.

If the model is accurate and (c) and (d) are true, and if the assumptions are also accurate and (e) and (f) are true, then it follows: a Democratic minority will always allow bad policy to be enacted by a Republican majority. So too will a Republican minority always block a Democratic majority.

Does this not describe at least the last decade of American politics? If it does, then I think my assumptions about the relative merits of the parties’ policy proposals are correct.

Seriously though, am I wrong [4]? I feel like this is a good model, but I might just have a super-harsh case of confirmation bias.


[1] This partially explains the first year of the Obama administration, with the caveat that the 60th member of the caucus was often not a Democrat, but Joe Lieberman, who endorsed the Republican ticket in the 2008 election.

[2] I am assuming this to be broadly true. Certainly there is some degree to which the majority party may campaign against obstructionism, but I suspect the effects of such campaigns are negligible.

[3] This assumes a unified government (executive & legislative) and so describes part of 2001, 2003-2007 (Republican) and 2009-present (Democratic).

[4] One counter-argument I want to preemptively knock down: Bush-era Social Security reform failed not because Democrats blocked it in the Senate, but because the Republican government (executive + legislative) was not in fact united on the policy. Of course, on some issues it may be the case that bad policy will blocked because the minority party is acting in good faith and sees that policy as legitimately dangerous enough and sufficiently difficult to correct in the future (this of course is the purpose for which the filibuster was designed and has been traditionally used). There is, of course an alternative model in which this is always the case, but that model leads to the somewhat more emotionally satisfying, but I think ultimately less parsimonious conclusion that the entire Republican Senate caucus is completely fucking insane.

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  • By Eternal Return « Beekeeper & Schwartz on 13 August, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    […] think your assessment in the post below is generally correct, though I don’t know if the Democrats favor “good policy” […]

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