Do Elections Fix Gridlock? Not If They Replace the Wrong Part

I’m sure you know the expression, “Insanity [or stupidity] is doing the same thing expecting a different result.” I think it applies to an idea I’ve been trying to find a way to say for a while. Ezra Klein just did.

If Americans were dedicated students of the congressional process, they might respond to gridlock by punishing the people who’re responsible for it. But only a quarter of Americans can identify 60 votes as the number needed to break a filibuster. Another 25 percent think it’s 51 votes, and the rest don’t really know. When people are angry at Washington, they do the logical thing and take it out on the folks who’re putatively running the place.

That congressional rules give the minority the power to decide the success of the majority’s agenda is so unintuitive that it’s pretty much impossible to run elections based off the concept. Even when the voters do turn on incumbents, the majority of the incumbents come from whichever party holds the gavel, so the election is looks like a repudiation of the majority. Voting against Washington looks functionally the same as voting against the party in power, and that’s why the minority acts the way it does, and will continue with its behavior until it ceases to be profitable.

Put another way, if Washington were a car without tires, we’re repeatedly replacing the battery expecting it to run. That metaphor breaks down (though the puns keep on going) in that the Senate’s rules invite the political behavior that induces the wrong electoral response. It is as if the car actually ran by consuming its own tires. Vehicles like that would be destined to fail, even at critical moments on the highway. Sound like a recipe for gridlock? Exactly. Want to replace the battery again? That sounds pretty insane to me.

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