Posted by: Jeff | January 29, 2010

Why Obstructionism Works

Back in the early to mid 90s, the Republicans discovered something critical about American politics: when a political minority blocks legislation through use of the filibuster, American voters inevitably punish the majority for the gridlock. Needless to say, this is the game they’re currently playing on health care reform. Turns out that one of the primary structural reasons this tactic works is that most Americans don’t know the filibuster exists:

Via Jon Chait, an interesting Pew survey reveals that just 26 percent of Americans know that it takes sixty votes to pass a bill in the Senate.

I don’t find that surprising, but it’s good to see it quantified. It’s also worth pointing out that one of the major failings of most political journalism is a perennial tendency to overstate the American people’s level of knowledge about politics. You never hear the impact of public ignorance about the filibuster discussed as a factor in the president’s fortunes. But I’d say the fact that people don’t understand how this works is an important element of what makes it so effective. To a small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is a heroic stand. To another small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is an undemocratic disaster. But to the majority of Americans it’s completely invisible and all they see is a Democratic Party that can’t get things done.

This could be wishful thinking on my part, but it seems like this is the kind of thing which should be easily solvable via decent civics classes in high school. So maybe what we have here is a failure of our education system as much as anything.



  1. In the context of national politics during the last year that’s rather moot. The Dems had a super-majority; no filibuster by the GOP was possible. All the Dems had to do was be united…

  2. True. But I think the counter-argument would be that the filibuster’s supermajority requirement distorts our politics even when it can be technically overcome. Getting 60 Senators to agree on anything is extremely difficult, especially when it comes to something as complex and controversial as health care reform.

    The death of the public option, the excise tax exemption for the unions, the Medicaid deal for Ben Nelson, and all the other horse-trading that soured the public on the bill wouldn’t have been necessary if it weren’t for the filibuster. It’s a lot easier for a minority of 40 Senators to agree to protect the status quo than it is for 60 to agree to take a risk. So the filibuster hands the minority a potent weapon even when they can’t actually make it stick, due to all the contortions necessary to get to 60 votes. They can just say no, sit back and watch the other side disintegrate.

    And this all goes down without most of the American public having any idea what happened. And if they don’t have any idea what happened, they can’t use their votes to incentivize the right politicians to change their behavior.

    (I’d add that all this applies whether you’re dealing with a party-line 60/40 split, or a split that’s a mixture of both parties on both sides.)

  3. And the alternative is a straight 51 vote? I’d fight hard against monstrosity since it would hand that slim majority overwhelming power.

    It would be OK if the Congress limited the scope of its legislation, but there’s no way sweeping omnibus legislation should be done by a simple majority.

  4. Well, I think you run up against the Constitution in that case. I’ve heard arguments the health care bill is unconstitutional in its make-up. Obviously I disagree. And assuming it is kosher, the Constitution makes no distinctions on the ambition or scope of legislation. It doesn’t say “small good, big bad.” It just says you just need a majority in both houses and the signature of the president. The filibuster is an extra-constitutional mutant fluke that grew out of the Senate’s procedural rules.

    It’s a fair argument to say supermajorities SHOULD be required for large-scale legislation. I just think you have to admit the Constitution currently disagrees with you.

    And I’d argue that health care reform is actually the kind of problem which, due to its structural nature, simply can’t be done small-bore. I think that also applies to the budget crisis we’ve got coming down the pike. And I think all these problems are sufficiently controversial, and sufficiently painful, that you’re never going to get a supermajority to support a realistic fix, no matter what mix of Reps and Dems you have. For example, on the deficit, no one wants to raise taxes, but no one wants to cut spending either. The schizophrenia crosses both parties.

  5. The filibuster has it Constitutional origins in the ability of each house of Congress to set its own rules, so I can’t really “run up against the Constitution.”

  6. You run up against it in the sense that there’s no constitutional backing for your normative claim that large-scale legislation should require supermajority votes.

    Now, there’s no constitutional backing for my normative claim that such legislation shouldn’t require a supermajority vote either. But that’s kind of the point. Unlike a lot of things in our governmental system, this is a question that can be legitimately settled by raw political might. That’s what I was trying to say. (Also, given that the Constitution specifically names certain actions which do require supermajority votes, the layering on of additional extra-constitutional supermajority requirements is, if technically kosher, certainly a bit odd.)

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