The legislative process cannot simply become a tool to punish political enemies or pass party priorities without consideration and debate.

 

The Founders intended the legislative process to be slow and deliberate, rather than prone to the whims of lawmakers seeking to score short-term political points at the expense of the long-term welfare of the country. Today, that deliberation, and what makes the Senate unique as a legislative body, is under threat.

Recent frustration with the workings of Congress has led to calls to speed up the legislative process regardless and make it easier to push through partisan priorities. More specifically, many in Congress and beyond are even calling for the elimination of the filibuster, claiming it is the source of congressional dysfunction.

While the filibuster can be used that way, doing away with it would further damage the process of legislating and subvert an existing check on power within the first branch of government. The filibuster may itself not be originally enshrined in the Constitution, but it is a long-standing norm consistent with the spirit on which our government was formed.

James Madison explicitly outlines the dangers of mob rule in “Federalist No. 10,” as well as the many ways government was structured to prevent it. And in “Federalist No. 63,” he warns of a scenario that is just as relevant today as the day it was written:

As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.

Make no mistake: recent calls to eliminate the filibuster are not driven by a belief that it would result in a better legislative structure, but rather by frustration at the inability to enact specific policy proposals. The legislative process may frustrate both sides who wish to push “urgent” priorities quickly into law while they are in power, but such actions risk creating the opposite effect when that side is inevitably in the minority.

As the New York Times opined in 1994, “[The Founders] certainly foresaw the possibility of gridlock, and they weren’t necessarily against it. They intended that the Senate should stop, deliberate, ponder and amend legislation more cautiously than the House.” Indeed, as the article further notes, the stated purpose of the Senate at the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was to “check the inconsiderate and hasty proceedings” of the House.

The filibuster is a critical tool that ensures our legislature operates consistent with that vision, and as such, we will work to defend it.

-Jonathan Bydlak, Director, R Street Governance Program

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Image credit: Katherine Welles