The filibuster stands today as the single most important impediment to the significant reforms needed in America’s climate/energy policies, its immigration policies, its labor law policies, and its need for a functioning judiciary. But beyond that, the filibuster has become a critical force undermining the workings of democratic accountability.
Democracy shouldn’t be identified strictly with majority rule. Indeed, in a past era the filibuster arguably played a role in facilitating democracy. It allowed legislators with unusually strong preferences to sometimes get their way in blocking majorities (in practice, this often meant allowing white supremacists to block equal rights for their black constituents).
The relatively recent arrival of the routine filibuster, however, simply turns on its head the basic idea that voters should reward success and punish failure. Relatively few people follow the procedural wrangling on Capitol Hill in detail or have a particularly impressive knowledge of the issues. What people do know is their own lives and their own communities, and they have a tendency to re-elect incumbents who are making things better and throw out those who are making things worse.
What we have today, however, is a situation in which the lines of responsibility are completely obscured. Voters are angry at the Obama administration for failing to deliver a robust economic recovery — and rightly so — but relatively few of them realize that the administration’s efforts to deliver additional economic boosts have been repeatedly stymied by a minority of senators. Similarly, the environmental community has been thrown into a maelstrom of recriminations and finger pointing, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has become the object of anger, over the failure of a climate bill that seems to have been supported by a majority of legislators in both houses.
This breakdown of accountability has ill-served the progressive agenda over the past 18 months, but it has quite scary implications for the country as a whole. Economic performance is the main determinant of election outcomes. If political parties recognize that the smart play for the minority party at any given moment is to use its powers of obstructionism to attempt to deliberately spike economic performance, the implications for forward-looking growth are quite bleak.
Ultimately, a country governed in that manner won’t survive very long. Which is why Republicans are almost certain to put a stop to filibustering whenever they happen to achieve control of the three branches of government. If Democrats have any sense, they won’t let themselves get beaten to the punch and will act decisively in January 2011 to restore accountability and effective government.