After cloture was finally used to break a Southern filibuster in 1964, something unexpected happened: The filibuster and its supermajority threshold became normalized and streamlined to make the Senate’s expanding workload more manageable. Soon, any senator could invoke the supermajority threshold simply by registering an objection, which today can be done via email. In the hands of Senator McConnell, this user-friendly filibuster became a weapon of mass obstruction. Today, nearly every bill in the Senate faces it, and therefore must clear 60 votes.
The Senate never made a conscious choice to operate this way, and its leading lights denounced the decline of the upper chamber, many of them moderates. Horrified by Calhoun’s innovation, Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Great Compromiser, was the first to try to limit the filibuster. In 1957, the Eisenhower administration backed filibuster reform in an effort to pass civil rights, but was outmaneuvered by Southerners. In the mid-2000s, the constitutional case for restoring majority rule was laid out compellingly by Martin Gold, who had been chief counsel to the Republican Senate leader Howard Baker, and Dimple Gupta, who worked in the Justice Department under George W. Bush.
As these moderates of both parties saw, reform is necessary because Senate obstruction has evolved exactly as the framers feared when they warned against enabling a “pertinacious minority” to “control the opinion of a majority.” Calhoun’s vision of a minority veto has come to pass.
The key to reform is eliminating the minority’s ability to impose a supermajority threshold on legislation while still giving the minority a platform and making it easier for senators to bring bills and amendments up for votes.
For example, the Senate could require a Jimmy Stewart-style talking filibuster, not just an emailed objection, reviving debate and making the chamber a place where incentives align to produce thoughtful solutions. In such a Senate, the floor will be lively and moderates like Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, would be kingmakers.
The most frequent objection is that such reform would make the Senate like the House. To the contrary, restoring floor debate and a basic ability to get things done would make the Senate the Senate again. The chamber’s fundamental purpose is to produce thoughtful solutions to the challenges we face, and its rules should exist not to entrench paralysis but to serve that goal.
In his memoir “A Promised Land,” Mr. Obama chronicles his regret that he “hadn’t had the foresight” to rally Senate Democrats to “to revise the chamber rules and get rid of the filibuster once and for all.” Because of his long Senate service, Mr. Biden has unique credibility to lead a successful push for reform. We can’t afford for the Senate to remain the place where good ideas go to die. We need to make the Senate great again.
Adam Jentleson, a progressive strategist and former deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, is the author of “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.”