Cheat or Compete?

US politics is becoming characterized more and more by cheating to win instead of working harder to be competitive enough to earn bipartisan votes.  It is weakening our Republic.

The town leaders had split badly over where to locate a manufacturing plant that would bring much needed jobs. They used angry words to rally lots of people to their side, even though many folks just threw up their hands and said they didn’t want any part of the fight.  The angriest among them decided to organize a tug-of-war contest: whoever wins also wins the right to decide where the plant goes.  They got a rope and began pulling. Soon enough one side started gaining. The other side didn’t like that and started kicking up dust in their opponents’ faces. That didn’t go down to well.  The leader of the first side asked some friends to throw water underneath the cheater’s feet. That, of course, was cheating too. Soon there was water splashed on both sides, and everyone was sliding and flopping around in the mud. They never did decide where to put the plant. They failed to create new jobs. But lots of people were left angry and upset.

Imagine how the story would have turned out if the two leaders had only worked harder to collaborate, make a trade, or compromise.

There is a real life side to this parable. Case in point, the US Senate.  The US Senate used to have internal rules that created incentives for senators to write bipartisan legislation and for presidents to nominate for Senate approval officials who would be acceptable to members of both parties.  For example, the old Senate rule from 1917 allowed debate on an appointee to continue indefinitely until a two-thirds majority voted to end that debate.  In 1975, the threshold was dropped down to three-fifths (60 votes).  In 2013, Senator Harry Reid, then the Senate Majority Leader, changed the Senate’s rules again, reducing the threshold to only 51 votes.  But senators could still debate up to 30 hours before a final vote could take place.  The Senate yesterday cut the maximum debate time to a maximum of two hours for federal district court nominees and most executive branch posts below Cabinet level.  The American public can now expect no more than two hours of debate and a majority of 51 votes to approve many appointees no matter how consequential a particular appointment might be.

Now there is talk about limiting Senate debate on legislation by eliminating the filibuster.  Filibustering is the Senate’s protection from the mobocracy that the founding fathers feared.  Filibustering is the main way minority parties can deny the majority a vote on legislation harmful to the minority.  Yes, filibustering in the face of strong consensus from both parties runs against the spirit of democracy.  Yet, filibustering in the face of a slim 53% majority held by only one party can be quite constructive if it is accompanied by an invitation to that slim majority to reach out to the other 47% and collaborate, trade, or compromise in a way that most Americans support. 

The long-run costs outweigh the short-term benefits.  Ending the filibuster means a lot of policy instability as control shifts back and forth between parties over time.  Each shift will feel like an imposition to half the electorate instead of legitimate policy.  It also means much more intense election campaigns because a Senate majority will mean so much more than it did before. That, in turn, will motivate still more cheating – voter suppression, misinformation, even violence.

Senators, Senate staffers, political operatives, and strategists: there is another and better way.  Work harder to earn bipartisan support from all voters, go for big tent politics, and restore Senate rules that reward bipartisanship.

Photo credit:  Frank Snyder, rope for tug-of-war contest 1916, Public Domain.

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