“The legislative filibuster is the most important distinction between the Senate and the House. Without the 60 vote threshold for legislation, the Senate becomes a majoritarian institution, just like the House, much more subject to the winds of short-term electoral change. No Senator would like to see that happen.”
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, April 2017
Now that the Democrats hold 50 seats in the 100 seat Senate, and the Democratic Vice-President can break ties, many Democrats want to change the Senate rules and eliminate the filibuster. This is a terrible idea, which will lead to governmental chaos if enacted.
- Why is the U.S. such a strong and successful country? For many reasons, of course, including a powerful economy and favorable geography spanning a whole continent and sharing a common border with only two other countries, both of which are friendly democracies. But also because of our amazingly stable constitutional form of government, which has now survived for 233 years (the constitution was ratified in 1788). This has happened because we are able to work out our differences in a mostly peaceful (except for the Civil War!) way.
- Ending the bipartisan comity resulting from a 60 vote threshold for most legislation in the Senate will mean, as Senator Schumer says, a Senate much more subject to the winds of short-term electoral change. Without the filibuster, Senator Mitch McConnell adds, “As soon as the Republicans wound up back in control, we wouldn’t stop at erasing every liberal change that hurt the country. We’d strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero input from the other side.” In other words, once the filibuster is eliminated, it is gone for good.
- But there are lots of other ways the 50 Republicans in the Senate can fight back immediately. The filibuster is only one of 44 standing rules, most of which are designed to enhance the rights of individual senators at the expense of the powers of the majority. Unanimous consent is required to open the Senate before noon, to dispense with the reading of the previous day’s journal, to move to business, to avoid reading out loud the text of every amendment and resolution, and to avoid roll call votes. Without unanimous consent, every task requires a physical quorum of 51 senators on the floor, not counting the vice-president. Would the 50 Democratic Senators plus the Vice-President eliminate all of these other procedural rules as well?
- In 2013, the Democratic majority, under Senator Harry Reid, eliminated the filibuster for judicial appointments. We now have three new conservative justices on the Supreme Court. Is this really the type of strictly majoritarian Senate the Democrats want from now on?
Conclusion. By eliminating the Senate filibuster, the Democrats are playing with fire and can end up getting badly burned. It will result in a “scorched-earth Senate,” which will be ugly to watch in action and will stir up even more partisan animosity along the way. U.S. politics is already way too polarized. Do we really want to make it even worse? The U.S. a strong and stable democracy. But the good will of the majority of citizens who just want sensible governmental policy should not be taken for granted. It can dissipate very quickly in a crisis. The Democrats should proceed with great caution.