Today's Filibuster Reading List, With Practical Suggestions!

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The Atlantic still laments the departure/graduation/loss of our friend and colleague Joshua Green (at right), who did great work here for many years and is now at Bloomberg Businessweek. But he still is doing great work, most recently with a column for the Boston Globe on -- wait for it -- how the boring-sounding filibuster really has become a first-order distorting problem.

I turn the microphone over to Josh:

An easy way to grasp [the filibuster's] importance, and why filibuster abuse has made Washington such an angry, dysfunctional place, is to imagine what the country would look like without it.

Let's take only the Obama presidency. Had the filibuster not applied, the United States would have a market-based system to control carbon emissions, which would limit the damage from global warming, vitalize the clean technology sector, and challenge other large polluters like China and India to do the same. The new health care law would have a public option. Children of undocumented immigrants who served two years in the military or went to college could become US citizens. Women paid less than their male colleagues because of their gender would have broader legal recourse against their employers. Billionaires would not be able to manipulate the political system from behind a veil of anonymity.

Dozens of vacant judgeships would have been filled. The Federal Reserve would have operated with a full slate of governors, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond. Elizabeth Warren would be director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, not a candidate for the Senate....

Each of these measures passed the House and received, or would have received, at least the 50 votes necessary to pass the Senate -- but lacked the 60 votes to break a filibuster.

And while of course these are all Democratic measures that have been impeded --"Let's take only the Obama presidency" -- he immediately goes on to point out that a comparable use of the filibuster when the Republicans are back in control will hog-tie them as well.

For another time, we'll go into the ways in which the filibuster and overall government dysfunction are not really symmetrical "extremists on each side make both sides suffer" situations. The Democrats overall have a greater stake in effective use of public programs -- from GI Bill and Medicare of yesteryear through financial-regulation bodies today, and even the Census Bureau, as explained in an important NYT story today. Thus a bias toward a minority-veto, paralyzed Senate has an overall right-wing effect. But any administration is hamstrung if it cannot fill judicial seats, get ambassadors in place, staff up the executive branch, etc.

For a change, here is some positive and even practical advice on what to do about a country whose private economy and culture are still highly resilient, but whose ability to address public problems is being destroyed. I have two books and one article to recommend.

1) Ten Steps to Repair American Democracy, a book by Steven Hill, with foreword by my old speechwriting comrade Hendrik Hertzberg. Practical suggestions for improving campaigns, elections, and the functioning of the legislature, without invoking the deus ex machina of a whole new Constitution.

2) The Gardens of Democracy, by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer. Liu is another one-time speechwriter, in his case for the Clinton administration; Hanauer is the creator of the recent controversial censored-for-a-while TED speech on inequality. Their book is about the crucial role of "public stories" -- the way we talk to ourselves about the public and private life. All great political leaders, from Lincoln to FDR to Churchill to JFK and Reagan -- have understood that people respond much more powerfully to parables and narratives than to debater-style ten-point analytical briefs. From the time of FDR through Reagan, Frank Capra-style "we're all in this together" narratives dominated. Since Reagan's time, "get the goddamned bureaucrats off my back" narratives have prevailed, usually accompanied by a parallel "keep the government's hands off my Medicare" false-consciousness theme. Liu and Hanauer suggest a new narrative approach.

3) "Want to End Partisan Politics?" in the WaPo today by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. Mann and Ornstein have received deserved acclaim for a recent article and book on the real sources of governmental failure. Today's article suggests some things that actually could be changed.  

Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

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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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