Congress's Problems Go Beyond the Filibuster

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says it's a no-brainer: Just go back to the old rules about holding the floor and bringing all other business to a halt.


Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on Thursday suggested that fixing the filibuster problem in today's Congress wouldn't be a big challenge, if there were the political will to do it. Asked during a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival if it was time to get rid of the filibuster, Daschle pointed out that it wasn't the filibuster per se so much as the way the contemporary Senate rules interact with it that's turned the parliamentary tactic into a problem in the upper chamber.

"We've done two things with the current rules of the filibuster that have changed everything," he said. "We've gone from roughly three to four filibusters a congress to 130 in the last Congress. We did two things that made it far more palatable. The first thing we did was to say we're going to start -- and this is a technical term -- dual tracking legislation.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival — See full coverage

"That is, we'll just set the filibuster aside and take up something else. And then we went from dual tracking to triple tracking. Believe it or not, we've actually in the last few Congresses gone to quintuple tracking -- moving aside things so we have five legislative tracks going simultaneously, making the filibuster so easy."

He continued: "But the second thing we did was even more important. It used to be ... when you were on the floor and you were filibustering you had to hold the floor. You no longer have to do that. And if you don't have to hold the floor, there's no price to be paid.... I'd just go back to the old rules. There's a reason we only had three filibusters. You can't triple track, you can't dual track and you gotta hold the floor until you can't hold it anymore and you gotta run to the restroom."

The panel, "Congress's Fall from Grace: Can We Reverse It?," might just as well have been titled "Why Washington Is Broken and No One Can Fix It," as Daschle and panelists Vin Weber, Jane Harman, Mickey Edwards, and Dan Glickman described the transformation they'd witnessed as the United States has undergone wave after wave of procedural reforms intended on increasing transparency, accountability, and the connection between party and ideology in the United States, leading us to a world where congressmen and women talk to the cameras instead of each other, spend far too much time fundraising, leave families behind in their districts and don't socialize with each other, are encouraged by electoral forces to avoid compromise, and now are members of the most disliked, most bitterly divided Congress in over a century. Many of their specific critiques were familiar, and after the forum I would up speaking with an attendee frustrated by the lack of "Aha!" moments in their catalog of civil woes.

But what if the problem with our political system, which is more polarized than at any time since before the Civil War, is not one that can be solved with one big sexy new idea? What if instead it is one more akin to the problem of a neighborhood that has fallen into disrepair, beset by a multitude of problems that are well-recognized but extremely difficult to solve, because the product and responsibility of so many different actors, each responding to slightly different pressures? Reading about the antebellum Congress in Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening last year, I recognized a familiar portrait of legislative conflict and stalemate. That era's Congress unwound its entrenched partisan positions only after political battles gave way to military ones in a bloody and protracted internal conflict. Our present stalemate is of a different nature, not so much about one big thing (slavery) as the results of many little things, now that America has changed so that geography, party, and ideology are more closely aligned than ever before, thanks to what journalist Bill Bishop calls "the big sort."

But to the extent that our problems have to do with this geographic sorting -- geography, after all, is the fundamental organizing principle of our democracy, so it stands to reason anything that impacts how the population is organized across space will have profound political effects -- it is possible the cure to what ails us politically will have the qualities of what it takes to rebuild a physical community. Chief among them: It will be slow -- decades long -- and require the political equivalent of anchor tenants who can draw others into reinvesting in the system. And it may also require the passage of enough time for the great sort -- the political downside of the flight of educated creative class types into specific geographic areas, giving rise to the cultural hubs Richard Florida has so well described -- to ebb, and the flow of people and energy to return to communities rendered homogeneous by both outflow and a lack of new citizens.

Meanwhile, Harman suggested that one way of pushing back against the new extremism is for states to move to open primaries, like they have in her home state of California, where the top two vote getters of whatever party then face of in a general election. That would lessen the power of small groups of committed partisans and factions of all sorts, and their power to drag politicians from the center, or off the stage entirely. But anything that's up to the states takes time, and will be adopted only if it suits local circumstances (meaning: if it is seen as in the interests of local powers that be). In short: don't hold your breath.

We may just be in an era of learning to live with the political equivalent of eyesores on the corner, an ugly time of broken institutions. One day, the fire that animates today's political gangs will burn itself out. Some old thing will be judge unsalvageable and need to be razed. Someone new will move in to the neighborhood and plant some flowers and repaint a house. But there doesn't seem to be a magic way out, a snap your fingers instant solution to the political and ideological stalemates, any more than there is to rebuilding a neighborhood in physical space.