In 1787, during the Constitutional Convention, James Madison—who is often referred to as the Father of the Constitution—described the Senate as “a necessary fence” which would protect “the people against their rulers” and from “the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.”
George Hoar, who served as a senator from Massachusetts from 1877 to 1904, said that the Senate was created so that “the sober second thought of the people might find expression” and to “resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people.”
The Senate was created to be a slow-moving, deliberate legislative body where the voice of the minority is heard, and laws are scrutinized, debated, and passed only after a consensus is reached. It was set up to be a balance to the House of Representatives where the majority rules. Destroying the filibuster would destroy the very purpose of the Senate.
Proponents of destroying the filibuster maintain that it is obstructionist. Writing for the Brennan Center for Justice in October 2020, Caroline Fredrickson wrote, “During the Obama administration, Senate Republicans took obstruction to a new level, using the filibuster more than ever in history. But the use of the tactic had been climbing even before Obama became president, prompting recent presidents of both parties to use executive orders and other administrative tools to circumvent Congress…Given that the executive branch has increasingly moved away from legislative initiatives because of Senate obstruction, the filibuster continues to undermine a real democracy.”
In a way, she’s correct. But that’s because America was never supposed to be a pure democracy. Famously, when Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the Founding Fathers had created, he responded, “a republic, if you can keep it.” The Founders built a system of government that was supposed to force consensus and compromise. Never was America to be run by a 51 percent pure majoritarian rule—or by a president using executive orders to circumvent the legislative body..
Those pushing for the removal of the filibuster complain that the Senate is too slow and nothing ever gets done.
But if the Senate were a pure majoritarian body like the House, Democrats would pass entirely uncompromising progressive legislation when in power, only to have it repealed and replaced by a conservative agenda as soon as Republicans gained a majority. Engulfed in this perpetual cycle, a filibuster-free Senate would give the American people whiplash.
Rachel Bovard, writing for the Heritage Foundation in April 2017, wrote that “the framers designed the Senate to be a consensus-driven body. If a majority party knows they need to garner 60 votes to end debate on a bill, the necessity of working across the aisle, negotiating, and finding areas of agreement becomes imperative, rather than optional. Without the filibuster as a tool of negotiation, the Senate becomes little more than a smaller version of the House of Representatives where legislation reflects the priorities of the majority, with little regard to concerns of the minority.”
Even President Joe Biden, who has more recently called the filibuster a “relic of Jim Crow,” previously defended the filibuster.
“The Framers sought not to ensure simple majority rule, but to allow minority views—whether they are conservative, liberal, or moderate—to have an enduring role in the Senate in order to check the excesses of the majority.” Biden said in a 2005 speech.
As a Senator, Barack Obama offered a similar defense.
“At the end of the day, [Americans] expect both parties to work together to get the people’s business done. What they don’t expect is for one party—be it Republican or Democrat—to change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet,” Obama said in a 2005 congressional speech. “We need to rise above an ‘ends justify the means’ mentality because we’re here to answer to the people—all of the people.”
— Steve Guest (@SteveGuest) March 25, 2021
Barack Obama in 2005 offering an impassioned, reasoned defense of the filibuster — before it was racist.pic.twitter.com/KAuvbYNe8f
— Jon Miltimore (@miltimore79) March 26, 2021
Biden and Obama were right on the importance of the filibuster—and it remains true today no matter which party holds political power.