Is the Filibuster Holding Back Third Parties?

I had an interesting conversation with my father-in-law the other day, during which he posited the question about why third parties have had such a tough time gaining traction in American politics.  Sure, we’ve flirted with them a few times over the years–think of the Reform Party, which brought us the likes of Ross Perot and Jesse “the Body” Ventura–but they haven’t won much, and in Perot’s case may have even cost George H.W. Bush a second term.  Moreover, third parties seem more like sideshows for the political fringe, the destination for loudmouth characters who couldn’t make the cut in the two respectable parties–what might have been Donald Trump’s fate, had the country not been in such a foul mood.

Even so, amongst the electorate there still seems to be a craving for a third way–a party for conservatives who think the GOP jettisoned any semblance of limited government long ago, and another party for liberals who think that Democrats are nothing more than a bunch of sellouts who talk up income inequality while raking the cash in from their Wall Street cronies.  Why haven’t these people been able to channel all that righteous fury and take on the sclerotic two-party system that has been dominant since Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president over 150 years ago?

There are a number of reasons for this, of course, chief among them being that we don’t have the kind of parliamentary system that lends itself to the coalition building that you see in a place like, say, Great Britain.  America has also evolved a campaign finance system that makes it far more difficult for candidates to raise money outside of the two major political parties.  And then there’s the problem of what a third party would even be capable of doing if it somehow managed to get a candidate or two elected to Congress.  Their numbers would be so small, it would be next to impossible to affect any real change.

It’s that last part, I told my father-in-law, that’s probably the hardest to overcome.

To which he asked, “What if you did away with the filibuster?”

He acknowledged that there would certainly be risks with that approach–the filibuster, after all, had stopped a lot of bad legislation over the years–but it’s also hamstrung the Congress from pushing through a lot of needed reforms (as we’re seeing with Obamacare now, and are likely to see with tax reform).  At the same time, though, the filibuster has entrenched the two-party system in the Senate.  For it to work, virtually all of the senators from the minority party are required to band together so as to deny the majority party the 60 votes they need to invoke cloture.  There isn’t a lot of room for defections–and senators know that there is usually a heavy price to pay for defying the party.  Democrats, in particular, have shown a lot of discipline when it comes to mounting a filibuster.

Now suppose that there is no filibuster.  A lot of the pressure to fall in line is taken off, which frees individual senators to make decisions more independently.  At the same time, though, it could potentially create better opportunities for outsiders to move in and wield some influence.  Two or three senators from a conservative third party, for example, would actually have the power to force changes in legislation on a close vote.  That potential might provide some incentives for backers to begin the hard work of building a viable third party, which could finally compete with Democrats and Republicans.

Granted, it would be a pretty risky move.  With nothing to stop them, a party that held both the Congress and the White House would have carte blanche to do whatever it wanted.  On the other hand, if things get bad and that party gets tossed out of power, it would also be a lot easier to undo legislation.  No matter what, though, doing away with the filibuster would be a serious shakeup of the system.

That’s why Republicans will probably never attempt it.

But if the Democrats take back the Senate and the White House?

Anything goes.

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Marc Giller

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