This country’s political system has officially become more dysfunctional than the Thanksgiving dinners of many American families. And while watching our leaders attempt to fix this country’s health care system isn’t quite as depressing as listening to NFL commentators ask, “Why do they still allow the Lions to play on Thanksgiving?” year after year, it’s pretty close. I’m holding out for the day Mitch McConnell challenges Harry Reid to a duel with pistols at dawn, televised on C-SPAN — no, ESPN — and sponsored by Budweiser.
In fact, this could be an improvement. At least we would have finally acknowledged that politics has become less about improving our nation and more about winning partisan points. It’s this growing polarization of American politics that has paralyzed policymaking. One of the most controversial things about the current health care bill is that it forces insurance companies to actually provide health care to people who pay for it. For the most part, this bill is an expansion of a bloated, subpar patchwork of public and private insurers and providers — a bill I half support because of what it could accomplish, and half disdain for what it could have done and didn’t. Yet, somehow this incremental effort at reform has been transformed into the decisive battle in the war against socialism, communism and fascism all at the same time.
If it were up to me, political parties would be banned outright and all levels of government would be dissolved. In my utopian society, all disputes would be settled via steel cage death match. It would be quicker and more effective than the dysfunctional, polarized system we’re currently forced to endure. Unfortunately, if Democrats can barely pass the reforms on which they were elected with a filibuster-proof majority, I don’t have much hope for Congress implementing my model of governance.
Luckily, I have a Plan B: get rid of the filibuster. I’ve come to the conclusion that this archaic rule is one of the greatest contributing factors to the crippling inertia of the legislative branch. At first, I thought the filibuster was written into the Constitution and thus nearly impossible to eliminate. To my surprise, I found that there is absolutely nothing stopping the abolishment of the filibuster but the Senate itself, as it is an entirely self-imposed limitation written into the Senate’s procedural rules. Each party criticizes the other vehemently when it threatens to use the filibuster but neither will dare dispose of it in case they need it later.
The common supporting argument for the filibuster is that it allows the minority party to prevent the majority party from being too radical in its legislative pursuits. But in the modern era, the only thing the filibuster accomplishes is putting an enormous amount of influence in the hands of a few senators that feign uncertainty over a bill. Because a simple majority can’t pass legislation anymore, party leaders have to insert special provisions and make concessions just to appease wavering senators.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, there was an average of one filibuster per year. According to research by political scientist Barbara Sinclair, threat or actual use of filibusters has become a staple of the legislative process — growing from affecting only 8 percent of legislation in the 1960s to 27 percent in the 1980s and finally rising to 70 percent since the Democratic takeover of 2006, when Republicans found themselves in the minority.
Hyperpartisanship has made it a political imperative to oppose all action of the other party. With the need for a supermajority to move a bill through each step of the legislative process, the filibuster ensures that the policies enacted by Congress will be weak, watered down and full of frivolous measures to appease senators in the middle. The system in place is so constrained by these two factors that the term “representative democracy” threatens to lose its meaning. If we can’t vote representatives into office that will enact the policies we want, can we really claim to have a voice in how we are governed?
Instead of serving the public good, our representatives are holding health care for ransom. When the American people elect a party as a majority, that majority has a mandate to take the nation in the direction the people voted for. America deserves the change it voted for when it gave control of both Congress and the White House to the Democrats. America deserves democracy that works.
Alex Schiff is an assistant editorial page editor.