Back to the Filibuster

By James Fallows

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.]

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/12/back-to-the-filibuster/68175/