Obama wants filibuster reform. Would it help polarization?
Obama had some interesting things to say about polarization and the filibuster in his interview with Vox. When the question of if government can work in the midst of polarization was posed, Obama mentioned the filibuster:
“Probably the one thing that we could change without a constitutional amendment that would make a difference here would be the elimination of the routine use of the filibuster in the Senate… The filibuster in this modern age probably just torques it too far in the direction of a majority party not being able to govern effectively and move forward its platform.”
It’s important to note that this is an answer about governing, not reducing polarization. If you watch the video from the interview, you might assume that Obama’s answer on the filibuster is a response on how to solve or ameliorate polarization. It’s not. This is an important point because reforming the filibuster and reducing polarization are at odds with one another.
For all its faults the filibuster is an inclusive political instrument. It forces majorities to listen and compromise with the minority. However, a new breed of stubborn politics has crippled the honest pursuit of bipartisan compromise. Filibusters are currently used at rate that essentially prevents Congress from addressing problems. While stalling a bill’s progress is hardly new to Congress, the frequency with which they are used today has undermined the filibuster as a means for compromise and transformed it into a means of complete obstruction.
This doesn’t have to be the case. The filibuster could be a process that incorporates minority policy opinions without serving as an insurmountable roadblock. Done properly, filibuster reform could create a system that reduces dysfunction while also assuaging polarization. For example, placing a greater burden on minority senators to sustain a filibuster would make it more politically costly to wage one. This would preserve minority rights while also greasing the wheels of policy productivity.
Unfortunately, those options are not on the table. Presently the most likely reform to the filibuster would be its effective termination. This change would make it easier for a majority to govern in a polarized situation but it would also make the Senate a much more partisan institution. It would eliminate minority debate rights, almost certainly prohibit minority amendments, and undermine the political inclusiveness that has characterized the Senate for most of its history.
Filibuster reform is not likely to occur in the near future. However, the way the politics of filibuster reform shake out, it is a near certainty that changes to the filibuster will not reduce polarization. It will worsen it.
Governing in polarized times is a problem that needs to be addressed. But we should weigh if change is worth the cost of further distancing already outlying political parties.