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Thursday, April 21, 2005

Does the Filibuster Systematically Benefit Conservatives? 

Are the "kill the filibuster" rumblings from Capitol Hill really a blessing for Democrats and their supporters? The estimable Scott Lemieux of Lawyers, Guns and Money puts a fine point on an argument heard 'round the leftish blogosphere:
It seems to me that the American system is plagued far more by the inability of the federal government to react and experiment with policy solutions to social problems than by the risk of passing unwise legislation. The Madisonian system already has a large number of veto points; the last thing we need is to create more... The way I would look at it is this: comparable liberal democratic systems with fewer veto points, such as the UK and Canada, have much better policy outcomes (health care being the most striking example) without any noticeable sacrifice of minority rights. For progressives, I think, the evidence makes it clear that the costs of the filibuster will always outweigh the benefits in the long run. But, of course, it all depends on how one makes a variety of theoretical tradeoffs.
I'm with Scott: comparative analysis is a great way of sussing out how getting rid of the filibuster would affect the direction of US policy. I think he's also right to point out that the filibuster is but one kind of veto point, and that not all veto points are created equal.

But I disagree with him on what the evidence shows us. I'd argue that in many cases, left and center-left policy outcomes are more likely where there are more, not fewer veto points. Bear with me.

First, let's widen the search a little. Instead of just looking at the UK and Canada, as Scott suggests, why not extend our analysis to the other Westminster-style (and thus veto-player-impaired) states, Australia and pre-1996 New Zealand? Or how about looking at all the wealthy democracies, most of which regularly have coalitions governments (and thus veto players up the wazoo)? What do we see?

This is a tough question, but let me take a stab at answering it. First, as the veto players literature would suggest, systems with a healthy dose of veto points are less nimble, policy-wise. This is just what Scott suggests. Of course, since (because of "globalization" or the spread of ideas or your-pet-theory-here) much of the policy action since the 1970s has been in the realm of dismantling the welfare state, we see that for the past 30 years or so, having more veto points usually means more leftish policy.

OK, but let's say the world is changing, and we believe that the near future holds out the promise of, well, progressing, i.e. enacting positive legislation in a left or center-left vein. Shouldn't the filibuster make this more difficult?

The answer: yep, it sure should. This is exactly the point people are making when they point to the Civil Rights Act battle, and it's a damn good point. But there's a second, important point to be made here: it's one thing to pass progressive legislation, and another thing entirely to get firms, workers and interest groups to play along with the new rules in such a way that left policy actually works. Generally speaking (and obviously some entitlements like Social Security are exceptions) the social democratic policies that folks on the left tend to hope get passed require a certain amount of trust, cooperation and coordination to actually work. When they do work, it's because the various actors involved believe that the system enabling this kind of coordination is around to stay and thus worth investing in. This point has been ably made recently by scholars like Pepper Culpepper and Stewart Wood, who've shown that states like the UK with few veto points often pass left-friendly legislation but with disastrous results. Since the next right-leaning government can and will dismantle the new policies with ease, no-one takes them seriously enough to invest in.

More on this later, but let me just sum things up: the filibuster isn't just a tool for preserving the status quo. It can also, conceivably at least, be a tool for building progressive institutions.

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