XIAO: Green Eggs and Ham: The Future of American Politics
Spoken and memorialized on the Senate floor in 2013, these timeless words were invoked in a filibuster speech opposing the continued funding of the Affordable Care Act. I doubt Dr. Seuss saw that one coming. Yet, in this moment of comic relief from the viciousness of modern American politics, the live broadcast of Cruz’s bedtime story for his daughters seems to capture all that is wrong with government today. Many news outlets and pundits at the time certainly seized on it to ask a question that seems even more relevant now, in the midst of a news cycle where every day seems to bring a different whistleblower complaint or more damning revelations about unprecedented presidential misconduct. What happened to American politics?
The symptoms of our broken politics today are obvious—a dysfunctional Congress, an imperial presidency, and a loss of confidence in our representative institutions as a whole. Yet, these are merely the symptoms of an illness that has taken American government by storm in recent decades. In an age where citizens can make their rage heard on any issue at any time in 140 characters or less or through the mere click of a button, politics have become significantly more reactionary and unstable. The center of power in Washington seems to shift at every election, as new presidents are coronated only for the opposition party to sweep the midterms two years later, seizing upon the incumbent administration’s unpopularity.
On some level, divided government means that democracy and its elections are working, but it also sets a very short timer on how long each administration actually has to implement its agenda. Ideally, every Congress would have two years to legislate its campaign pledges into actual policy. In reality, the time each legislature has to govern is much shorter, with August recesses and re-election season effectively cutting the term in half. In spite of this, voters don’t relent. In the age of Twitter and Facebook politics, Americans of all political affiliations want things done and done faster. The pressure is on representatives to achieve results, and failure means severe consequences for the party in control of government.
The increasingly winner-take-all mentality of our politics has forced our leaders to resort to riskier and more dangerous forms of electioneering, where the ends invariably justify the means. The evolution or, perhaps more fittingly, devolution, of the Senate filibuster, an institution that was once central to American governance, is glaring proof of this. For anyone yawning right now, I promise that this seemingly archaic procedure holds the key to American political dysfunction as we know it.
The filibuster is a privilege extended to every member of the United States Senate. As a deliberative body, the Senate was designed to guarantee free and open debate of any issue, so senators were allowed to speak for as long as they wished or were physically able to. Especially if a band of senators decided to hold the floor continuously, there used to be no way to stop a filibuster, other than a human need for sleep and nourishment—leading to the 18-hour filibuster of Robert La Follette in 1908. However, in 1917, the Senate instituted the cloture rule (also known as Rule 22), allowing a two-thirds majority of senators to stop a filibuster. That threshold speaks to the key ailment of American politics: the breakdown of our consensus-building institutions.
Before, the only way to shut down a filibuster required a politically unworkable number of senators to vote to invoke cloture, forcing compromise. Between 1917 and 1964, the Senate invoked cloture a grand total of five times. For comparison, Democrats have forced 78 cloture votes during the Trump administration on nominations alone. This has become possible only because of the political brinksmanship that Republican and Democratic Senate leaders have undertaken in the last decade. Former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went “nuclear” in 2014 and reduced the filibuster threshold on presidential nominees to a simple majority. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded in 2017 by nuking the supermajority requirement for Supreme Court appointments to confirm Neil Gorsuch.
This game never ends well. Just two years after Reid blew up the filibuster for presidential nominees, Donald Trump was elected and the Democrats had his nominees rammed down their throats. The year after Republicans toppled the Supreme Court filibuster, America saw the hotly contested confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. We have destroyed an institution that was intended to breed compromise, and all we have received in return is the poisonous politics of dysfunction that define Washington today. We have reached the point where we speak about politics in terms of nuclear warfare, as though all government must be a scorched-earth policy. We must stop dismantling the mechanisms of government that were created to protect us from ourselves, even if it means letting Ted Cruz read Green Eggs and Ham live on C-SPAN. If the past three years have shown us anything, it’s that Americans will stop at nothing to win. And therein lies the disease afflicting American politics.