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Opinion | For Democracy to Stay, the Filibuster Must Go

The filibuster arose only decades later. John C. Calhoun, a senator from South Carolina used it as a means to protect the interests of slavers like himself from a majority. From its beginnings through the middle of the 20th century, when segregationists like Senator Strom Thurmond, also of South Carolina, used the filibuster to try to kill multiple civil rights bills, the pattern has been clear: It has been used regularly by those who reject inclusive democracy.

The relevance of the history is that the pattern continues.

Finally, the filibuster is a redundancy in a system that already includes multiple veto points and countermajoritarian tools, including a bicameral legislature, a Supreme Court and a presidential veto. The Senate itself protects minorities in its very design, which gives small states the same representation as large ones.

Another common defense of the filibuster, as Ms. Sinema said, is that the filibuster is crucial for permitting full debate on a bill. Again, reality shows otherwise. The filibuster doesn’t only fail to ensure extended debate on a bill; today it curtails the opportunity for any debate at all. A single senator can signal he or she intends to filibuster by typing an email and hitting send. No need to stand on the Senate floor to make your impassioned case.


Reformers have suggested many ways to chip away at the filibuster without destroying it completely. One proposal would bar its use for legislation involving voting rights or other democratic expansions. Another would require the old-fashioned “talking” filibuster. A third would entail holding a series of cloture votes spaced three days apart, lowering the number of senators needed to end the filibuster each time. These are clever solutions, and Mr. Manchin has said he is open to at least one of them.

Even if there were a real debate on a bill, however, it should end at some point. That was clear more than a century ago, when the Senate had not yet established a rule to shut down a filibuster. As Henry Cabot Lodge, a Massachusetts senator, wrote, “If the courtesy of unlimited debate is granted it must carry with it the reciprocal courtesy of permitting a vote after due discussion. If this is not the case the system is impossible.”

If the political reforms in H.R. 1 are not undertaken at the federal level, Republican leaders will continue to entrench minority rule. That’s happening already in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, where Republican-drawn maps give them large legislative majorities despite winning fewer votes statewide than Democrats. It’s happening in dozens of other states that have passed hundreds of voting restrictions and are pushing hundreds more, under the guise of protecting election security.

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