Tom Ginsburg Writes on Filibuster Reform

Filibuster Reform is a Dangerous Necessity

Last Tuesday, Joe Biden called for suspending the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. In doing so, the President will be treading a dangerous path. If Democrats go ahead, they risk empowering Republicans in the years to come and eroding our already weakened political norms. But inaction on the filibuster now poses an even greater peril. Ultimately, securing the integrity of our elections and ending Congressional gridlock must come above preservation of the rules. Though a painfully imperfect solution, filibuster reform has become essential to safeguarding American democracy.

Filibuster reform promises to repair our ailing electoral system and could ultimately render the Senate more responsive to the American people. But it will come at two significant costs: weakening the Democratic agenda, and eroding the ground rules of American politics. The decision to suspend the filibuster would further degrade the nation’s political norms, perpetuating a game of “constitutional hardball” between the two major parties, reaching back to the 1990s. In 2013, unprecedented Republican obstruction of efforts to fill lower court judgeships was met with the Democrats’ suspension of the filibuster for those positions. Four years later, Mitch McConnell extended that principle to the Supreme Court, pushing through Justice Neil Gorsuch with a simple majority. Each side takes a modest step, but neither backs down.

Voting reforms come at the cost of escalating that stand-off again. Though Democrats frame their proposed suspension of the filibuster as a special case for voting rights, the recent history of our democratic institutions hardly suggests such restraint will prevail. Once the genie is out of the bottle, we could soon end up with no filibuster at all, energizing a dangerous tit-for-tat dynamic. Workable politics in a democracy depends on a set of agreed-upon norms about basic rules, but these norms are themselves subject to change. Most dramatically, their erosion culminated in the majority of House Republicans refusing to certify the 2020 presidential election. A further breakdown of bipartisan cooperation on America’s fundamental institutions could be perilous.

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Constitutional democracy