Back to the Filibuster

I write in solidarity with my Atlantic colleague Josh Green, and Ezra Klein of the WaPo, who along with others are turning up the heat again on the long-overdue issue of Senate dysfunction, starting with the filibuster.

Early this year I argued at length that all of America's problems were, in principle, easily solvable. The country is still so rich and spends so much so carelessly -- little shifts in course could change most of the worrisome trends. But there's more and more doubt that our public institutions are capable of even those little shifts. You want a Chinese comparison? Fine: Their problems are objectively much worse than ours -- but have a much higher chance of being addressed.

The paralyzed nature of the Senate is not the only factor here, but it's an important one. It's the main reason scores of judgeships, ambassadorial posts, and subcabinet offices sit vacant. And as the filibuster threat has gone from a rare exception to a routine procedural roadblock, requiring 60 votes to get anything done -- as the chart below shows -- the government's ability to respond to changed circumstances is bogged down, beyond what anyone had in mind 223 years ago.

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For another time more detailed argument about the Constitutional background, the possible alternatives, the winners and losers of the current system. Main point is, as Green and Klein and others point out, the window for action is just about to open -- and close -- with the beginning of the new Congress. Good for freshman Senators Udall, Merkley, and Bennet* in pushing a reform plan. Let's all keep the heat on and not let this opportunity slip away.
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*[Routine disclosure: Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado is the brother of the Atlantic's editor, James Bennet.]
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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