It’s Not The Filibuster’s Fault We Have ‘Gridlock,’ It’s The Senators’

Official Washington’s conventional wisdom about the Senate filibuster is a fairy tale. It is utterly unmoored from the choices being made by individual senators, party caucuses, and the body as a whole. Every person who has ever told you that the mean, nasty, outdated legislative filibuster is the source of Senate gridlock and the obstacle to common-sense legislating in Congress has either swallowed, or is peddling, a lie.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post this week, Ethics and Public Policy Center scholar Henry Olsen suggests requiring filibusters to be at least nominally bipartisan as a way of solving the familiar filibuster “problem.” What follows is not a fisking of Olsen, who is a good guy and perhaps the best electoral analyst in America today, but a corrective to the apparently universal pundit-class misunderstanding about what’s really going on inside “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

The mistake everyone makes is looking at Senate inaction and asking, “How can we change Senate rules so it can start legislating again?” The better question is, “Why did the Senate stop legislating in the first place?”

The answer isn’t “gridlock,” any more than “a car” drove through that parade in Wisconsin. Somewhere along the way, senators’ behavior changed. It’s not a coincidence this happened along the same timeline as the polarization of the parties over the last 30 years. Partisan filibusters were harder, and bipartisan legislating easier when the Senate had dozens of conservative-leaning Democrats and liberal-leaning Republicans.