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Prospects For Redeeming Institutional Dysfunction


At one of my wonkier venues, I have some thoughts about the issues that Matt and Ezra have also discussed recently. There’s no question that the combination of increased partisanship and institutional rules that assumed a substantial degree of bipartisan comity create a serious problem. I don’t see partisan polarization declining significantly (and nor do I think that, in itself, that would be desirable), so the question is whether the rules will change. In theory, not being able to enact an agenda while having responsibility for results hurts both parties over time, which provides the possibility for change. However, there’s also a problem in that the disadvantage isn’t symmetrical — the existing rules have a strong pro-status quo bias, so they favor conservatives much more than progressives (or libertarians, were they a strong political force.)

In the California situation that Ezra describes, therefore, there could be disequilibrium for a long, long time. For conservative Republicans in the legislature, things are great; given that they’re not likely to be a majority coalition in the foreseeable future, so the idiotic supermajority tax requirements allow them to stop things without taking responsibility for the inevitable chaos. In theory, the supermajority requirement could be done away with through another initiative, but this is going to be difficult for the same reason that the California initiative system is a terrible idea — getting voters to (effectively) vote for tax increases in isolation is never going to be easy. It’s a grim situation, and it’s hard to see things getting better for a while.

In the medium- or long- term, I’d be a little bit more optimistic about a new equilibrium at the federal level — minorities overplaying their hand has led to the modification of the filibuster before, and it could very well happen again. It’s pretty clear, though, that it’s not going to happen anytime soon, which means that a rare moment of liberal possibility is going to be largely thrown away. Here, the ideological asymmetry of the effects of counter-majoritarian rules combines with the Senate’s malapportionment, which means that even among a large Democratic majority there are going to be a lot of Senators who are perfectly happy with a situation in which progressive initiatives can’t pass, but with no blood on their own hands. It may have to be Republicans who end (or severely restrict) the filibuster.

I would reiterate that the Democrats (to the extent that they care about being able to govern) made a serious mistake by not provoking the use of the nuclear option. What’s even worse is that their defense of the filibuster didn’t even produce much of a short-term benefit; Bush got two very conservative Supreme Court appointments and most of his most extreme federal court nominees anyway. The fact hat the Gang of 14 was often considered a major defeat by conservatives is absolutely bizarre; it was a major long-term victory for the GOP in exchange for basically nothing.

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