Last summer, former President Barack Obama set the mark for Democrats hoping to pass a sweeping liberal agenda in a narrowly controlled Congress. His focus then, playing out now, was on eliminating the filibuster. He began the effort with a deliberately undermining false history. The Senate should eliminate the filibuster, he offered, because it was a “Jim Crow relic,” preventing congress from securing “the God-given rights of every American.”
His comments were, and remain, total nonsense.
Whereas there are no segregationist proposals before the United States Senate, it is unclear how this point is relevant to the filibuster’s current merit at all. In fact, it is unclear how this point is historically appropriate altogether. Arguing that any single tactic was responsible for segregation is historical revisionism. Democrat segregationists used every legislative tool to promote Jim Crow, the filibuster being one among many, and legislative promotion was secondary to the codification and outright promotion enabled by the judiciary.
Are we to invalidate every legislative tool used at any point for an undesirable purpose? This is not a strong argument, it is a strange form of governing cancel culture meant to inspire fervor. Serious people should not take it seriously.
Furthermore, Obama’s now oft-repeated claim is a historical myth. The Senate’s filibuster is almost as old as the chamber itself, and only in trying to fool an ignorant public would it be coupled with Jim Crow. The practice actually dates back to 1805 when the Senate broke from the matching rule book that it had shared with the lower chamber since Congress’ inception. At the urging of then Vice President Aaron Burr, the Senate sought to make a more deliberative chamber and enacted a series of rule changes to do so, the filibuster among them. It is nearly as old as Marbury v Madison, the ruling which established judicial review and is a pillar of the American legal system. Like judicial review, the filibuster may not have been established by the Constitution, but it clearly aligned with founding principles.
Herein lies the real threat in its removal. From the beginning, the Senate was meant to serve a different, arguably a higher, purpose from the House of Representatives. The upper chamber, Alexander Hamilton wrote, was meant to avoid yielding to “sudden and violent passions” and being seduced by “factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious solutions.” James Madison believed the Senate was to provide equality to the proportionality of the House, the two competing forces of a balanced legislature. The Constitution established that the members had to be older, more experienced, more temperate, hopefully wiser. They would demonstrate that wisdom by avoiding the whims of the day, slowing down, deliberating, building broader consensus, and developing more substantial legislative outcomes.
The filibuster is an essential part of this, preventing the chamber from acting in haste, ensuring that the voices of all states, regardless of political orientation, have a role and a say. Removing it will have an impact far beyond the Capitol. It would alter the Senate’s very essence, making the chamber more partisan, reducing the minority party to useless grandstanding, and further damaging debate for the country. The legislation produced would be weaker, with fewer voices able to have an impact. Maybe most impactful, it will ensure that elections are the only place that policy matters can be decided, undoubtedly making them even more bitter, divisive, and devoid of substance.
A younger Barack Obama made virtually the same argument. Speaking on the Senate floor in 2005, Obama vigorously defended the filibuster. “The American people want less partisanship in this town [Washington DC],” Obama said, “ . . . but if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock, will only get worse.”
He was right then and he is wrong now.
This tactic by Democrats should be unmasked for the political ploy that it is, but the ramification should they succeed cannot be understated. Eliminating the filibuster doesn’t just alter the U.S. Senate, it alters American politics. The fighting will be more bitter, not less, from Congress to campaigns. The safeguards that have protected the republic from bad ideas will be torn down and our system of government will be subject to the perennial whims of majorities, the embodiment of our founder’s fears. The removal of the filibuster is not progress, it is a descent into madness.
Jordan Harris is the Founder of Pegasus Institute, the largest public policy think-tank in Kentucky