Home / World News / Opinion | On the Filibuster, Joe Manchin Thinks James Madison Is on His Side. Nope.

Opinion | On the Filibuster, Joe Manchin Thinks James Madison Is on His Side. Nope.

When Madison speaks of a “minority” in the context of the Senate, he means an economic interest, not an organized political faction. “In all civilized Countries,” he says, “the people fall into different classes having a real or supposed difference of interests. There will be creditors & debtors, farmers, merchants & manufacturers. There will be particularly the distinction of rich & poor.”

He continues:

In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former.

The issue for Madison, a young Virginia planter at this point in his life, is how, using the principles of republican government, to prevent the rise of a “leveling spirit.” When he asks, “How is the danger in all cases of interested coalitions to oppress the minority to be guarded against?” he is not speaking about different parties; he’s speaking about the mass of the poor, working and indigent against the owners of property and wealth.

The question of how to balance power between two partisan factions within a legislature never came up, which should make it difficult to use Madison in defense of something like the filibuster. The most we can say is that Madison expected the Senate to be an elitist body and within that body, it would operate on the principle of majority rule except for when the Constitution stated otherwise.

You could make the argument that by blocking most egalitarian legislation, the filibuster does fit within the design and intent of the Senate. Then again, Madison was worried that the legislature would be carried away by the passions of the moment. It is unclear what he would think about a system required deliberation over time to pass legislation. To implement its agenda, a party has to win at least two consecutive election cycles. During that time, party elites and affiliate groups debate and deliberate among themselves over their priorities should they win power. And then, once in power, they have to negotiate the specifics of the bills in question.

Put another way, the debate over majority rule in the Senate isn’t about whether the chamber will have the power to stop any irrational exuberance in its tracks. It’s about whether, after an extended period of time, internal deliberation and public debate, a partisan majority in the Senate can pass its agenda into law using a simple majority.

I think it should. If the path from idea to bill to law includes multiple election cycles, where different and overlapping electorates weigh in on the parties and policies in question — and if it includes deliberation and debate within the chamber itself, including cooperation and negotiation with both the president and the House of Representatives — is that not akin to the proverbial “cooling saucer”?

I think we should at least consider the temporal hurdle I’ve described a kind of supermajority requirement that, once met, entitles a governing party to using a simple majority to pass its legislation. Between bicameralism, separated powers, the diverse and fractious nature of the parties themselves and the simple passage of time, we already have the forces that prevent whiplash and chaos. We don’t actually need another.

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