In Defense of the Filibuster



Having lost their 60-seat supermajority in the Senate, Democratic leaders are speaking out more and more against the filibuster. For those who don’t know, Senate rules of debate allow a senator to speak indefinitely, effectively delaying the body’s work until he or she chooses to stop speaking or a supermajority of 60 senators vote to shut him or her up. This delaying tactic is known as a filibuster and as long as 40 senators are willing to vote against ending the debate, it means that a minority of senators can delay the passage of a bill forever.

Lately there has been a lot of talk in Washington and among the media about the evils of the filibuster and how it is an unfair practice which is “undemocratic” because it takes 60 votes to overcome rather than a more “democratic” 51. President Obama addressed the issue in his State of the Union speech, saying, “…Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town.” Essentially, the left’s argument is that our democracy is being destroyed, our government is being shut down, and progress is being halted because the forty-one Republicans in the Senate are using the tactic. Allow me to make the case for the filibuster.

This whole “the filibuster is undemocratic” argument is silly because the Senate is not supposed to be a purely democratic institution: it is supposed to be a chamber for the states to represent themselves in the federal government. In fact, the Constitution originally called for Senators to be chosen by their state legislatures, not popular elections (this was changed in 1913). Because of the way the Senate is apportioned, 51 senators could be representative of only twenty percent of the population. That isn’t very democratic. If you want a purely democratic institution, just walk across the hall from the Senate into the House of Representatives.

The Senate is supposed to be a deliberative body in which the senators can come together and discuss a bill until they can find something everyone can agree on. It is supposed to protect minority interests. More importantly, it is supposed to be difficult to pass legislation; the Founders intended it this way to curb the excesses of the political moment. We all know how difficult it is for the government to change course once it starts doing something, so it is important that we thoroughly debate and discuss each bill before we pass it. Once it’s passed, it’s often too late to make any changes.

As for the argument that it has becomes “impossible” to accomplish anything in Washington without a supermajority in the Senate, a more accurate statement might be, “It is impossible to do everything we want” without a supermajority. The filibuster exists to force the majority to make at least some concessions to the minority and move legislation towards the center of the

political spectrum.

Although it is true that the Republican minority has been using the filibuster much more than before, I would offer the argument that this is happening not because Republicans want to shut down the government, but because they are philosophically and politically opposed to the leftist agenda being pursued by the majority.

Perhaps the Republicans would not feel it necessary to filibuster so many bills if the Democratic leadership would only moderate their positions somewhat and include at least a few Republican proposals in their bills.

To the leftist argument that the filibuster gums up our government and slows down its operation, I would respond simply with, “good.” Government makes mistakes all the time. Political parties come up with bad ideas, which they try to pass into law when they take over Congress.

Perhaps it’s good to force the government to rethink its legislation before it becomes law. Perhaps it’s good to protect the rights of the minority party. Perhaps it’s good not to pass sweeping, $1 trillion bills which reorganize and regulate one-sixth of our economy without pausing for debate and reflection. The filibuster exists to curb the excesses of democracy. Imagine if the Republican or Democratic Party could pass everything it wanted every time it got even a one-vote majority in both Houses of Congress. Our country would teeter back and forth between too-conservative and too-liberal every time the Congress changed hands.

Considering that in the last decade the Senate changed hands three times, I would say that we need a moderating influence which is able to withstand the small, temporary changes.

Getting rid of the filibuster would mean complete party control. I know many Democratic readers may be tempted by the arguments against the filibuster in order to pass health care, but let me leave you with one image to convince you I’m right: If the filibuster hadn’t existed during the Bush years the Republican Party could have passed everything it wanted with absolutely no check.

Imagine how scary that would be for you, and then realize that this is exactly how conservatives feel about the current political situation. The filibuster protects both sides. It moderates our government and it promotes debate. In the end, it results in better legislation for the country as a whole.