For several years, many of us have recoiled as foundational American institutions have repeatedly been demeaned: The judiciary has been accused of racial bias; the media maligned as the enemy of the people; justice and intelligence agencies belittled; public health agencies dismissed; even our election system has been accused of being rigged.
America works. America has worked for more than 200 years. The character of the American people deserves most of the credit. But close behind are our vital institutions.
The United States Senate is one of our vital democratic institutions. Since shortly after our nation’s founding, a single senator has been permitted to speak indefinitely, delaying and possibly impairing legislation favored by the majority, even if that senator were in the minority. When rules were eventually developed to cut off debate, the Senate required that decision to be made by a supermajority of senators, first 67 and now 60.
The power given to the minority and the resulting requirement for political consensus are among the Senate’s defining features.
Note that in our federal government, empowerment of the minority is established in just one institution: the Senate. The majority decides in the House; the majority decides in the Supreme Court; and the president is a majority of one. Only in the Senate does the minority restrain the power of the majority.
That a minority should be afforded such political power is a critical element of the institution. For a law to pass in the Senate, it must appeal to senators in both parties. This virtually ensures that a bill did not originate from the extreme wing of either party and will thus best represent the interests of a broad swath of Americans. The Senate’s minority empowerment has meant that our nation’s policies inevitably tack toward the center. As then-Sen. Joe Biden said in 2005: “At its core, the filibuster is not about stopping a nominee or a bill, it’s all about compromise and moderation.”
Consider how different the Senate would be without the filibuster. Whenever one party replaced the other as the majority, tax and spending priorities, safety net programs, national security policy and cultural interests would careen from one extreme to the other, creating uncertainty and unpredictability for families, employers and our partners around the world.
The need to marshal 60 votes to end a filibuster requires compromise and middle ground. It not only empowers the minority but also has helped to keep us centered, fostering the stability and predictability essential to investment in people, in capital and in the future.
Abandoning the principle of minority empowerment would fundamentally change the distinct and defining role of the U.S. Senate.
Today’s Democrats, now with the barest of majorities in a 50-50 Senate, conveniently ignore their own impassioned defense of the filibuster when they were in the minority. Then, they vigorously spoke of its vital role; 30 Senate Democrats signed a letter in 2017 imploring Senate leaders to “preserve existing rules, practices, and traditions as they pertain to the right of Members to engage in extended debate on legislation.” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), now the majority leader, had previously described attempts to do away with the filibuster as a “temper tantrum” and stressed in 2017 that “no senator would like to see that happen.”
Let us also be clear that those who claim the filibuster is racist know better. For former president Barack Obama to make this absurd charge after he himself vigorously defended the filibuster just a few years ago is both jarring and deeply disappointing. I don’t recall a single claim from Democrats that employing the filibuster was racist when they were in the minority.
The Democrats’ latest justification for eliminating the filibuster is Republicans’ unwillingness to pass partisan election-reform legislation. Democrats have filed these bills numerous times over numerous years, almost always without seeking Republican involvement in drafting them. Anytime legislation is crafted and sponsored exclusively by one party, it is obviously an unserious partisan effort aimed at messaging and energizing that party’s base. Any serious legislative effort is negotiated and sponsored by both parties.
Finally, consider a more immediate implication of eliminating the filibuster. There is a reasonable chance that Republicans could win both houses of Congress in the next election cycle and, further, that Donald Trump could be elected president once again in 2024. Have Democrats thought through what it would mean for them for Trump to be entirely unrestrained, with the Democratic minority having no power whatsoever? If Democrats eliminate the filibuster now, they — and the country — may soon regret it very much.
Opinion published in the Washington Post.