This post originally appeared in the New York Times
Senator Harry Reid's recent pledge to reform the filibuster is welcome, but in an era of extreme polarization, modest procedural change won't enable the government to fix critical problems like global warming. President Obama should encourage Senator Reid to oversee the elimination of the filibuster now, while neither party controls Congress, so that legislators have time to adjust before the return of one-party rule and the consequent enactment of more aggressive legislation.
Members of both parties fear that eliminating the filibuster would jeopardize cherished programs. But President George W. Bush's failed attempt to privatize Social Security contains an important lesson about policy continuity. He did not fail because Democratic senators threatened a filibuster, but because the public supports Social Security. If activists believe strongly in a program that the other side wants to gut, they should convince the public of its merits and then rely on popular will, not the filibuster, to preserve it.
Far from destabilizing democracy, ending the filibuster would strengthen our political system by reducing cynicism in government. When voters of either party send elected officials to Washington with a clear mandate for change, the filibuster prevents them from accomplishing most of what the voters want, and inaction confirms popular suspicions about government's inability to improve citizens' lives. Eliminating the filibuster would reduce cynicism by making government more responsive to voters, especially after landslide elections.
Counterintuitively, killing the filibuster would curtail polarization as well. If politicians ever delivered on extreme pledges that lacked majority support, for example privatizing Social Security, they would be punished harshly at the ballot box. The filibuster allows candidates from both parties to run on extreme positions that they know will never become law; its absence would encourage moderation over time.
As dysfunctional as the filibuster may be, minority factions used to have many more options for obstructing deliberation in the House and the Senate, both of which have curtailed procedures that once impeded majority rule. President Obama should urge Senator Reid to align himself with this proud tradition, and to work with members of both parties who believe that Congress's proper role is to reflect, not stymie, the will of the people.