Ornstein’s simple fix for some of the Senate’s dysfunction

The very day that I wrote about George Packer’s New Yorker article detailing the depths of the Senate’s dysfunction, an op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times suggesting a simple solution. Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track. In his op-ed piece, Ornstein notes:

The Senate, once the place for slow and careful deliberation, has been overtaken by a culture of obstructionism. The filibuster, once rare, is now so common that it has inverted majority rule, allowing the minority party to block, or at least delay, whatever legislation it wants to oppose. Without reform, the filibuster threatens to bring the Senate to a halt.

The problem has many causes, but Ornstein identifies three in particular that interact to cause the paralysis:

Part of the problem lies with today’s partisan culture, in which blocking the other party takes priority over passing legislation or confirming candidates to key positions. And part of the problem lies with changes in Senate practices during the 1970s, which allowed the minority to filibuster a piece of legislation without holding up other items of business. But the biggest factor is the nature of the filibuster itself. Senate rules put the onus on the majority for ending a debate, regardless of how frivolous the filibuster might be.

Ornstein then proposes a simple fix that would remove the silliness and obstructionism while still allowing the minority party to block or delay the few pieces of legislation about which it cares most.

An even better step would be to return to the old “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” model — in which a filibuster means that the Senate has to stop everything and debate around the clock — by allowing a motion requiring 40 votes to continue debate every three hours while the chamber is in continuous session. That way it is the minority that has to grab cots and mattresses and be prepared to take to the floor night and day to keep their filibuster alive. Under such a rule, a sufficiently passionate minority could still preserve the Senate’s traditions and force an extended debate on legislation. But frivolous and obstructionist misuse of the filibuster would be a thing of the past.

This is exactly the sort of simple fix that we at CivilPolitics.org advocate. It does no good to simply call for politicians to be more civil, or to put the needs of the country before those of their parties. But anything that changes the weapons available for partisan warfare, and that raises the costs of using those weapons, is likely to have immediate payoffs for civility in American politics. Bravo Mr. Ornstein!

–Jonathan Haidt