Does the filibuster make the Senate more or less democratic?

I am for abolishing (or reforming) the filibuster, but it’s much more complicated than many who share that view make it out to be. Yes, in some scenarios the filibuster can undemocratically block legislation supported by senators representing most Americans. We shouldn’t, however, ignore the different scenario where the filibuster is our only way to stop senators representing a minority of Americans from undemocratically imposing unwanted legislation on the majority.

The scenario that Democrats who favor abolishing the filibuster are imagining right now is that their party gains four seats and takes over the Senate in the 2020 election. Let’s assume they do so by winning seats from Republicans in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, and not losing any seats (270towin’s agglomeration of forecasts suggests that those four seats are the most likely to flip). If that were to happen there would still be 21 states with two Republican senators. Those 21 states have 36% of the U.S. population and their senators alone could successfully filibuster legislation. Overall, including states where there would be one Republican and one Democratic senator, Republicans would represent 167 million people and Democratic senators would represent 206 million people — yet the Republicans could block action.

That is very undemocratic, but there is also a scenario where the filibuster is what saves us from an undemocratic outcome. In fact, it’s the scenario we had in 2017 and 2018. In that period there was a Republican House of Representatives and a Republican president. There was also a Republican Senate even though fifty-one percent of voters in the elections that picked that Senate had voted for Democrats (or third party senators who caucus with them) while 44 percent had chosen the Republicans. The Democrats in that Senate represented 223 million Americans while Republicans represented 184 million. Nevertheless, if it had not been for the filibuster the Republicans could have passed any legislation they wanted (use your imagination, Democrats, on what that would have looked like).

If the Senate was actually a representative body, the case against the filibuster would be crystal clear to me. But given its nature, it’s not a simple call. In the end, I am for eliminating (or reforming) it so we can address our national and global challenges. If it also means legislation passes that I don’t agree with, I’m comfortable letting our democratic processes, flawed though they are, sort out the political consequences.



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Michael Ettlinger

Director, Carsey School of Public Policy, UNH. Fmr Clinton-Kaine transition, @pewtrusts @amprog @economicpolicy @taxjustice. Views here in a personal capacity.