Note what else has happened just in the past few years:
- State legislative recalls are on the rise. There have been 38 state legislative recall attempts in U.S. history. 17 of those -- nearly half -- have been since 2010.
- The filibuster is on the rise. Once a rare tool, it is now invoked on virtually every piece of legislation in the U.S. Senate. The filibuster has become more common since the mid-90s, but its use since 2009 has skyrocketed.
- Republicans threatened a shutdown and a debt default just two years ago.
These are the tools of a frustrated minority party in an era of polarized parties. When a majority party is advancing an agenda that the minority party finds unacceptable (as is almost inevitable when the parties are so ideologically distinct from each other), the normal methods of disagreement will begin to seem insufficient.
What are the normal methods? Basically, you vote against bills you don't like and propose alternate bills that you do like. If you're a large minority party, maybe you can cajole a few fence-sitters in the majority and win on a few votes. You can try to move public opinion to your side. You can do some log-rolling and horse-trading to win once in a while. If you get tired of losing on most votes, you organize better campaigns and recruit better candidates to try to win a majority in the next election.
These tactics were pretty much okay for House Republicans for the four decades they held minority status from the mid-50s to the mid-90s. They didn't win on party-line votes, but that wasn't the worst thing in the world, since a) there were far fewer party-line votes back then, and b) the policy consequences of losing were far less dire, since the ideological distance between the parties was much smaller.
It's a different story today. If you (or your supporters) fervently believe that the passage of the other party's agenda is not only bad but outright un-American, a betrayal of our most sacred principles, the love-child of Satan and Eva Braun... then how can you accept a loss? How do you not use every tool at your disposal, even ones that your more senior colleagues find distasteful or even dangerous? It's not enough to say, "Hey, we tried to stop ObamaCare, but the other side just had more votes." If the Affordable Care Act really is the Death of America, and orthodox methods to stop it have failed, then why would you not use unorthodox methods, even ones that might cause harm to America? Harm is better than death, right?
Now, I should mention that all this tactical innovation isn't just going on in one party. The bulk of recent recalls, for example, were perpetrated by Democratic-leaning activists against Republican officeholders in Wisconsin. But I would also say that the externalities imposed by excessive recalls pale to those imposed by shuttering the federal government or defaulting on its debts, and there's only one party using those tactics today.
At any rate, as long as tools like this are lying around and can be used to either delay or roll back the majority's policy accomplishments, they'll eventually be employed when the minority party grows desperate enough. The solution, then, is either to make the political system less partisan -- something that countless reformers have tried and failed to do -- or take away the dangerous toys. We don't have to have the filibuster, the recall, or a separate vote to raise the debt ceiling to pay for things Congress has already voted to pay for. None of these things were written into the US Constitution, no less the Bible. If we don't like the way they're being used, we can choose to abolish them.