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As goes the filibuster, so goes cooperation in Congress

As goes the filibuster, so goes cooperation in Congress
© Greg Nash

The reason we buy insurance for our homes, cars, businesses and, yes, our lives is to protect us from the destructive consequences of risks that we know exist, but whose timing we cannot predict or control.

To protect it from similar sudden, unpredictable incidents — namely, bad ideas, extremism or rushed thinking — America itself has an insurance policy: It’s an obscure but powerful feature of the rules of the U.S. Senate called the filibuster.

For more than 200 years, the rules of the Senate have required 60 of the 100 senators to agree that a bill or other measure has been sufficiently debated before it can receive a vote. If even a single senator believes more discussion is needed, and that senator goes to the Senate floor to speak, a vote cannot be done until they are finished. These “filibuster” speeches have, at times, lasted more than 20 hours because every senator generally has the right to speak as long as he or she wants. The Senate’s work grinds to halt in the meantime. Sometimes even the threat of a filibuster is all it takes to hold things up.

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At times, the filibuster has been used in shameful ways, like by senators opposed to civil rights legislation. And, in recent years, both parties have used it against an opposing president’s judicial nominations, until both parties defused it for such cases. But its continued availability against legislation is seen by many as bedeviling progress on “big,” “important” ideas, and recently many have proposed eliminating it entirely.

We shouldn’t do that. If we ever want to see partisanship and division ease and unity rebound, the filibuster needs to stay.

Despite its funny name and arcane rules, the filibuster is essential to forcing opposing sides to work together. Without the filibuster you get one-sided outcomes that can be polarizing. 

An example is Obamacare — which passed using a type of bill that couldn’t be filibustered. I supported Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, and as governor I invoked its expansion of Medicaid to the benefit of hundreds of thousands of Ohioans, but other parts of this legislation were flawed and would have benefited from genuine bipartisan input and debate. Without it, however, and because it was passed by a party-line vote, the issue of Obamacare and health care reform has never settled down.

The filibuster is essential to avoid division and instead find compromise and cooperation when Congress faces difficult issues. With the higher vote margins the filibuster requires for progress, neither side can generally expect to get their way without concessions to those with other views. That moderates measures that might be extreme, improves poorly conceived ideas and generally helps improve the quality of government.

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Hyper-partisanship in Congress and its logical consequence — dysfunction — has pushed both parties away from even trying to compromise and driven them to try going around Congress with largely untested moves by presidents, such as issuing Executive Orders, relaxing regulations or, conversely, tightening them. The result? The logjam just moves to the courts when these actions are challenged by lawsuits. In the meantime, real progress is left undone on major issues such as unemployment, Medicare and Social Security, student loans and higher education and financial supports for struggling businesses, just to name a few. 

New approaches are needed in Congress to allow for reasonable debate above the inevitable political fray — so that problems of this magnitude can be addressed.

One idea could be a new committee in each chamber with equal party representation whose sole purpose is to address the country’s most pressing problems when normal debate breaks down. The likely outcome of a tie on most issues would force members to prepare in advance for how to compromise so that progress can be made.

No member of Congress is more important than the institution, and none of their interests — or their parties’ — outweigh those of the country’s.

Why then, should protections be removed to allow for greater unilateral action that will only pour more salt on our country’s wounds of division?

Removing the filibuster and giving up on working together would worsen the situation.

Only with a rededication to civility — understanding anew that we are a single country but with many voices worthy of hearing and then joyfully embracing the privilege of service — can our leaders be worthy of the American experiment. It’s certainly not easy, or tidy, but what worth having is? Democracy and freedom are.

John R. Kasich was governor of Ohio from 2011 to 2019; before that, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 2001, during which he was a key figure in passage of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.