The Myth of Bipartisanship

The most important number in Washington this month is not the $827 billion price tag on the stimulus bill. Nor is it the eye-popping 598,000 jobs lost in January. Those numbers will change. The $827 billion will shift in conference committee, and January's job losses will amaze only until February's job losses are announced. You will not see those numbers again. They can be safely forgotten. Do not, however, forget the number zero. It will prove a frequent companion in the coming years.

Zero. That's how many Republican votes the stimulus bill received in the House. Zero. Not one. Not Mike Castle of Delaware, whose constituents gave 62 percent of their votes to Obama. Not Anh Cao of Louisiana, whose district went 74 percent for Obama. Not Illinois' Steven Kirk, whose district went 61 percent for Obama. Zero. A popular new president elected amid an economic crisis was not able to attract one crossover vote on his first major priority. In the more moderate Senate, Obama is expected to attract three Republican votes. They will have cost him hundreds of billions in concessions, and they will have cost America hundreds of thousands of jobs.

It is time to say this quite simply: There is no such thing in Washington as bipartisanship. This is not to say that there will be no such thing as bipartisan bills. Republicans will vote for Democratic initiatives when it appears to further their goals. But insofar as crossover votes have come to be seen as representative of an elusive character trait or political spirit known as "bipartisanship," it is time to let go of an increasingly damaging fantasy. And if we let go of the myth of bipartisanship and embrace the reality of continued minority obstructionism, that may also mean it's time to let go of the filibuster.

The most troubling aspect of the Republican performance on the stimulus package was that, viewed rationally, they were not wrong. If Barack Obama passes $800 billion of government spending through a Democratic Congress and the infusion of federal money accelerates job creation, than the one industry likely to contract is "Republican politicians." Obama's approval ratings will rise, as will those of his partners in the Democratic Congress. They will campaign on their record in 2010 and make gains in the midterm elections. Republican congressmen will lose their jobs. Those who don't lose their jobs will become less powerful as their numbers dwindle.

But they can profit from Obama's failure. And that's their current strategy: Attack the stimulus, try to make it smaller and less effective, express united opposition to its existence, and attempt to wrest electoral advantage if it fails.

It is in the minority's interest, in other words, for the majority party to prove ineffectual at addressing America's most urgent problems. Fundamentally, all successful opposition-party campaigns boil down to the same message: We told you so. When the opposition can't say that, as with the Democrats in the aftermath of the Iraq War, they tend to struggle.

In the House, this incentive structure doesn't much matter. The minority is a passive, albeit vocal, observer. The structure of the Senate, however, makes it possible for the minority to effectively ensure the failure of the majority. Which brings us to the filibuster.

"The filibuster is almost as old as America itself," editorialized The New York Times in late 2004. "In 1790, senators filibustered to prevent Philadelphia from becoming the permanent U.S. capital. In the centuries since, senators have used their privilege of unlimited debate to fend off actions supported by a bare majority of the Senate, but deeply offensive to the minority."

That's the traditional history of the filibuster. It's the sort of empty fluff you might find in a book report for a high school civics class. But the actual history of the filibuster tells a rather different story. Far from being a sacrosanct feature of American politics, the filibuster is, every few generations, understood to be so detrimental to governance that it is radically weakened.

Originally, the filibuster was a feature of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. As the House of Representatives expanded, however, long debates grew too unwieldy, and it was eliminated outright. But the Senate held firm to the principle of "unlimited debate," at least at first. In 1841, Henry Clay threatened to end the filibuster after the minority used it to doom his banking bill. He was rebuked by his colleagues. Indeed, in the early Senate, filibustering required neither a bloc of support nor unity among senators. Rather, it was the right of each and every senator to speak as long as he deemed necessary. It was, at this point, a guardian of minority opinions rather than a tool of minority parties.

But by 1917, this state of affairs had grown unwieldy. At the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, the Senate adopted rule 22, a provision allowing the Senate to close debate with a two-thirds majority vote. "Cloture" was born.

The 20th century saw the filibuster emerge as the favored tactic of the embattled Southern minority. Strom Thurmond, in fact, set the record for the longest filibuster: 24 hours and 18 minutes to delay the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Now associated with a corrupt and regressive regime, few remained idealistic about the filibuster's role in American life. In 1975, the post-Watergate Congress slashed its power even further: Now a three-fifths majority vote could close debate in the Senate.

The filibuster, however, has become more common as it's been weakened. In the 1973-1974 Congress – the year before the filibuster was weakened to 60 votes – there were 31 filibusters. In the 2007-2008 Congress, the filibuster was used more than 100 times (comparatively, the 2005-2006 Congress, when Democrats were in the minority, saw 54 filibusters). It has become an accepted feature of the Senate's architecture. "You have to have 60 votes to pass anything," says Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The tactic is so embedded into the psychology of the institution that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid does not even force actual filibusters. If there are not enough votes to ensure cloture, the legislation is simply tabled. No long-winded speeches needed.

This is, perhaps, the greatest irony of all. The filibuster is the right to unlimited debate. It has instead become the refuge of those who could not win the last electoral argument, but seek to win the next one. The prime use of the filibuster now is to keep the majority party from governing successfully. It is the reason the stimulus is less likely to work and comprehensive health-care reform is unlikely to happen and climate change is unlikely to be averted.

The filibuster does, as The New York Times said, "fend off actions supported by a bare majority of the Senate, but deeply offensive to the minority." But those "actions" amount to successful governance. What offends the minority is losing more seats. Generations before us have recognized this, and so long as the filibuster has been in existence, so too have wise politicians tried to constrain its capacity for mischief. But the experience of recent years suggests that the filibuster can no longer be contained. Foiling the majority is too tempting, it makes too much electoral sense. And so it may be time to finish the job that Henry Clay started. It may be time to abolish the filibuster.