On Parliamentary War

Dysfunction in the contemporary Senate is driven by the deteriorating relationship between the majority and minority parties in the institution. In this environment, regular order is virtually nonexistent and unorthodox parliamentary procedures are frequently needed to pass important legislation. This is because Democrats and Republicans are now fighting a parliamentary war in the Senate to help steer the future direction of the country.

James Wallner presents a new, bargaining model of procedural change to better explain the persistence of the filibuster in the current polarized environment, and focuses on the dynamics ultimately responsible for the nature and direction of contested procedural change. Wallner’s model explains why Senate majorities have historically tolerated the filibuster, even when it has been used to defeat their agenda, despite having the power to eliminate it unilaterally at any point. It also improves understanding of why the then-Democratic majority chose to depart from past practice when they utilized the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster for one of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees in 2013. 

On Parliamentary War’s game-theoretic approach provides a more accurate understanding of the relationship between partisan conflict and procedural change in the contemporary Senate.

Partisan conflict in the Senate has become increasingly intense, raising doubts that the chamber’s rules protecting minority rights will survive. Wallner provides valuable and thoughtful new insights into what may come, drawing from military theory to explain when the Senate majority party will—and will not—limit the powers of the minority.
— Matthew Green, Catholic University of America

The Death of Deliberation

A common observation of the Senate today is that it is paralyzed by gridlock; the Senate is currently composed of ideologically polarized members, and the majority and minority leaders exercise more influence because they lead more cohesive political parties. However, the argument that the Senate and by extension, the Congress, are undermined by rampant obstruction overlooks the fact that the contemporary Senate is still capable of overcoming the differences among its members without descending into an endless debate of ideological partisanship and irreconcilable gridlock.

While current treatments of the Senate often seek to explain why gridlock happens, in this book, James Wallner addresses the important question of why gridlock does not happen. His answer is quite simple: The Senate changes the manner in which it makes decisions on a case-by-case basis in order to limit conflict between its members. Yet, the Senate’s ability to produce important legislation in the current environment may undermine the institution’s deliberative function.

Wallner puts forth the unique proposition that while the contemporary Senate may indeed be broken, it is not broken in the sense typically acknowledged. Put simply, deliberation has succumbed to the Senate’s bipartisan determination to avoid gridlock and pass important legislation.

The U.S. Senate has evolved from “norm-based” through “collegial,” “majoritarian,” and “structured consent” modes of policymaking during the last half century. This immensely readable book tells that story. Its account is shrewd, surefooted, anchored in experience on Capitol Hill, and convincing. These days, the author argues, the problem isn’t really that nothing gets done, it is that the chamber’s processes of open deliberation have gotten ragged.
— David R. Mayhew, Sterling Professor of political science, Yale University