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Time to Reform the Senate Filibuster

Professor William Aceves

Surprisingly, the U.S. does not always acknowledge the principle of majority vote. The unusual role of the Electoral College in presidential elections is a well-known example of this dynamic.

Another example is the Senate filibuster—which requires 60 senators to call for debate to end on pending legislation. This means that a minority of senators can block Senate action.

>he filibuster is a powerful mechanism, writes Professor William Aceves in an op-ed recently published in Ms. Magazine. It is often described as a counter-majoritarian procedure that protects the Senate minority and promotes bipartisan collaboration. At times, the filibuster has fulfilled these important functions. But in most cases, the filibuster has been used as a partisan mechanism to undermine democratic governance.

In recent years, the filibuster has been used with increasing frequency in the Senate. The consequences are significant, and both parties can point to the Senate filibuster to explain failed legislative efforts.

Because the filibuster impedes the legislative process and counters democratic governance, it is time for reform, writes Professor Aceves. But there is still an opportunity for the Senate to promote bipartisan cooperation and address counter-majoritarian concerns.

Professor Aceves discusses various reform possibilities. One approach is to restructure the filibuster process to impose a greater burden on senators seeking to stop proposed legislation. A different approach, writes Professor Aceves, is to connect filibuster reform with other Senate procedures. For example, the Senate could establish a bipartisan committee to consider revisions to the legislative process. This could reduce the partisan pressures that motivate the filibuster. In fact, the Biden administration has proposed a similar committee to study Supreme Court reform.

As Senate Democrats debate the future of the filibuster, they should consider procedures that uphold the principle of majority vote. But in crafting a solution, they should also consider the shadow of the future. Thanks to the potential tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Harris, Democrats have at least two years of majority rule in the Senate. This could change in 2023. In fact, both parties should recognize the pendulum of power swings both ways. This is democracy at work.

To read the complete Ms. Magazine op-ed on reforming the filibuster click here.