The inability to get major legislation through the Senate is an important reason why presidents have expanded the use of executive orders. The problem is that executive action is always limited in nature. Presidents can’t make laws; they have to work within existing laws. Executive action is also transitory. Presidents can make changes with the stroke of a pen, but their successor can reverse those decisions just as easily. This results in a transitory approach to government that is not suited to handling long-term, systemic problems, like racial injustice or the climate crisis. It also results in policy changes that lack the legislative imprimatur that is at the heart of our democratic process and has led to enduring programs like Social Security and Medicare.
There is no evidence that the filibuster helps create comity. In fact, the expanded use of the filibuster coincides with the most divisive and polarized periods in American political history. Over the last few decades, bipartisanship has collapsed on Capitol Hill in part because the filibuster has encouraged lawmakers to take the easy way out and double down along party lines instead of working together to compromise.
As the debates over the filibuster unfold, nobody should take McConnell’s arguments very seriously. He’s certainly within his rights to defend the filibuster as a tool of partisan obstruction, but he should at least be honest about it, rather than espousing some fantastical notion that he is acting in the name of unity. But maintaining the filibuster in its current state comes at a high cost. Obama was right. It is a “Jim Crow relic,” and one that today keeps us decades behind where we need to be in public policy.