Among the many forgotten lessons of America’s past is the abysmal failure of the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Thanks to the widespread absence of effective civics instruction, much of the public is unaware of the very existence of America’s first effort at nation-building, let alone the reasons that initial effort failed.
The Articles had numerous flaws–mostly attributable to the reluctance of the colonies to cede authority to a central government. Probably the best-known weakness of that first effort was the inability of the new central government to levy taxes. The central government could ask for revenues–for example, monies to retire debt amassed during the Revolutionary War–but if a state didn’t want to pay, it didn’t pay, and the federal government could do nothing about it.
The lack of a dependable revenue stream wasn’t even the worst of it. Under the Articles, any changes to the structure or operations of government needed a unanimous vote of the 13 colonies–and most other policies required the concurrence of a super-majority. Those provisions made governing impossible. When the Founders met in Philadelphia to replace the fatally-weak Articles with the Constitution, changing that unworkable super-majority requirement was high on their “to do” list.
What we know of that history and the Founders’ antagonism to government by super-majority should inform our approach to the current iteration of the Senate filibuster.
Ezra Klein recently hosted Adam Jettleson, a longtime Senate staffer, on his podcast, and reported their conversation in a column for the New York Times. Jettleson pointed out that one of the biggest misconceptions about the filibuster is the idea that it promotes bipartisanship.
In fact, it does the opposite because it gives the party that’s out of power the means, motive and opportunity to block the party that’s in power from getting anything done. And when the party that’s in power doesn’t get anything done — when voters see nothing but gridlock from Washington — they turn to the party that’s out of power and try to put them back in office.
Republicans are well poised to take back majorities in both the House and Senate — all they need is a handful of seats to do so. So they have every rational, political incentive to block Biden from achieving any victories. A program that would cut child poverty massively would be a huge victory for Biden. And the ability for Biden to pass it on a bipartisan basis would be a huge victory for his campaign promise to restore bipartisanship and unity.
Jettleson reminded listeners that the Framers had anticipated this very situation. They identified this huge drawback with supermajority thresholds in 1789, when they had direct firsthand experience with the Articles of Confederation.
In Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton addresses this misperception head-on. He says, “What at first sight might seem a remedy,” referring to a supermajority threshold, “is in reality a poison.” You might think it would cause compromise, but really what it does is it provides an irresistible temptation for the party that’s out of power to make the party in power look bad.
As Klein observed, bipartisanship is something the majority wants, but the minority has no incentive to give–something Mitch McConnell certainly understands. During the first years of the Obama administration, McConnell knew he could win the majority back by sabotaging its ability to govern–that the majority party will inevitably get the blame for gridlock, no matter how unfair that may be.
The mischief being done by the current iteration of the filibuster has become obvious. It continues to prevent the Senate from functioning properly–for that matter, as Jettleson documents in his recent book, “Kill Switch,” it pretty much keeps the Senate from functioning at all.
A mountain of evidence suggests that it is long past time to get rid of the filibuster.
The question, then, is why Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continue to defend it.