As the Senate eviscerates its healthcare bill in order to garner the necessary 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, the idea of filibusters became interesting to me. In principle, it’s sound enough. If you’re against a bill, you vote no. But if a bill is absolutely unacceptable, you filibuster it: suspend it endlessly in debate and prevent it from ever getting to a vote.
Filibusters, however, have a problem. It’s the same problem as the “urgent” checkbox on an email. Both rely on humans acting reasonably.
The little exclamation point beside an email is supposed to indicate that the email is particularly important and that you should read and respond to it immediately. Unfortunately, it’s conducted on the honor system. Say that you are one of a dozen people sending reports to your supervisor. You want your supervisor to read your report first, even though you know that all the reports are equally important from his perspective, so you check the “urgent” box. All your coworkers thought the same way, so all the reports are now marked urgent. Nor is it just reports: there are vacation pictures and grandchildren pictures and the Joke of the Day and an order to boycott Target because it hates veterans. Everyone marked his or her email as urgent because everyone thinks that his or her random communication is more important than everyone else’s random communications. The “urgent” box becomes meaningless.
Filibusters work similarly, but instead of a mere loss of meaning, there is a loss of outcome. Filibusters should be saved for bills to which one is particularly strongly opposed, but as there’s no penalty to filibustering, there is no reason not to filibuster every bill one opposes at all. In particular, Republicans’ new identity as the party that defines itself through opposition to all Democratic ideals virtually requires any Republican who doesn’t want to be crucified by his own party to filibuster every Democratic bill.
The end result is essentially that 60 votes instead of 51 becomes the pass condition for a Senate bill, at least a Democratic one. 51 votes, or 59, or any number in between are all majorities, so this means that bills are not passing that the majority of Senators (and, by proxy, the majority of their constituents and therefore the majority of the American people) want to pass. The senate becomes a body whose primary role is to prevent things from happening, rather than to make things happen.