The debate over the filibuster entirely misses the point
© Greg Nash

The filibuster appears to be on its last legs. The long-maintained Senate rule allows a minority of senators to stop legislation even if the underlying bill is supported by a majority of their peers. But Democrats and Republicans have been chipping away at it in recent years, and it may well be relegated to the dustbin of history next year.

It’s easy to see the appeal of dumping the filibuster. At a moment when it’s rare that either party can coalesce a majority of 60+ votes, the Senate seems less like the saucer cooling tea as the Founders imagined, and more like an icebox freezing good and bad ideas alike for eternity. Something must be done. But those of us who are frustrated with Washington’s intractable gridlock need to see the push to undo the filibuster for what it is: a symptom of what ails our politics — not the disease itself. After all, with various modifications, the essence of the filibuster has remained the same for decades. It’s just that senators are now more prone to abuse it.

For decades, the filibuster was used only as a tool in the most extreme cases — senators who opposed a bill might vow to vote against it, but they wouldn’t filibuster except in unusual circumstances. Sometimes the need for 60 votes to get anything done forced senators to work across party lines which is what Washington needs more of now.

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Dumping the filibuster would allow one party to pass virtually all legislation on an exclusively party-line vote. If the other party were to retake the majority two or four years later, they could undo it all, meaning all the rules that govern the way we live, work, run our businesses, get health care, use energy and educate our kids could change constantly. That could be a recipe for constant and endless uncertainty and instability. The big question isn’t whether we should abandon the filibuster — it’s what we should do about the underlying stampede toward partisanship.

The crisis in Washington isn’t a decades-old procedural rule. It’s that all the incentives in today’s politics — how you win a primary, how you raise campaign contributions, how you get booked on cable television, how you build a following on social media — push our elected leaders to be more partisan. Once in office, Republicans are perpetually pulled to the right and Democrats to the left. And that unyielding reality stifles the legislative bipartisanship that solves problems.

That’s why members of the Senate are now more prone to use the filibuster. And we can either accommodate that unending march toward a politics of us versus them by upending the filibuster rule, or we can begin getting at the root of the underlying problem. At No Labels, we think the right path forward is clear — we’re working to change the incentives and cut the partisanship.

Take, as an example, our proudest accomplishment: Inspiring the creation of the House Problem Solvers Caucus. The bloc was born after years of trips up to Capitol Hill cajoling Democrats and Republicans to set their party labels aside and sit down with members of the other party to see if they couldn’t come to bipartisan agreements. Fast forward to today and the Caucus, the only bipartisan bloc of its kind in Congress, is 50 members strong, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. And they’re having a big impact.

The key is the Caucus’s quiet ability to push back against unreasonable legislation championed by the left of the Democratic Party and the right of the Republican Party. For example, after the Senate passed a bipartisan humanitarian aid package amid the crisis at the nation’s southern border last June, the Caucus diffused efforts to change the bill and block passage. When a resolution denouncing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel was wallowing in committee, the Problem Solvers’ demands prompted expeditious passage. And this July, the Problem Solvers worked with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and others to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, which the Associated Press described as “the most significant conservation legislation in nearly half a century.”

The filibuster is not the problem — the underlying challenge to American democracy is. Until we counter the incentives that drive our leaders to the political extremes, the vast majority of the American public who want Democrats and Republicans to work together will remain frustrated and disappointed because their government is not working for them. As the Problem Solvers and their increasing number of allies in the Senate prove, there’s a better way for American democracy. We need to seize it now.

Joe Lieberman was a U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1989 to 2013 and is chairman of No Labels, a national organization working to revive bipartisanship.