350+ Scholars Call for Filibuster Reform Ahead of Town Hall

A group of more than 350 historians, political scientists, and other scholars concerned about the future of democracy in the U.S. released an open letter Tuesday in which they explained the history of the legislative filibuster and urged lawmakers to immediately reform the Senate rule in order to end gridlock and restore “public faith in our system of government.”

“A government unable to produce results that significant majorities of the public elect their representatives to deliver is no longer a representative government,” the scholars wrote in a letter addressed to U.S. senators. “The disconnect between popular support for policies and a government’s ability to enact them ultimately erodes public trust, deepens political cynicism, and delegitimizes that system of government.”

The academics joined a growing chorus of voices—including dozens of congressional Democrats and scores of progressive advocacy groups—calling for the elimination, or at the very least, reform of the 60-vote rule, which currently allows the Republican minority in the Senate to, as Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) put it, “prevent a democratically elected majority from passing overwhelmingly popular legislation” to expand voting rights and reform labor law, among other priorities.

On Wednesday at 7:30 pm ET, Democratic Reps. Marie Newman and Sean Casten, both of Illinois, will be joined by Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, for a virtual town hall about “why the filibuster has got to go.”

The scholars wrote that “with critics of the filibuster advancing arguments for its reform, we write to you with the hope that a shared understanding of this parliamentary procedure, including its history and its implications for our system of government, can better inform discussion.”

“We believe that procedural reform can strengthen the core functions of the Senate as envisioned both by the Framers of our Constitution and by generations of Americans—as well as sustain Americans’ faith in democracy,” they continued.

In contrast to the House, the Senate has fewer members with broader constituencies, higher age requirements, longer terms, and equal representation by state. According to the scholars, the Framers included these features “to insulate the Senate from political winds and support senators’ abilities to deliberate thoughtfully.”

Today, however, “the Framers’ vision of the function of the Senate has largely been inverted,” the letter reads. 

Now that lawmakers can send an email to kill a bill without ever leaving their office, “leaders on all sides agree that the Senate does not engage in the robust deliberation, debate, and compromise that it once did,” the scholars wrote. Instead, “it is now the world’s only legislative body with an effective supermajority requirement for common legislation.”

The academics emphasized that “the Framers explicitly rejected a supermajority requirement for common legislation,” thanks in large part to their direct experience with the problems of a dysfunctional government. 

“In the wake of the Articles of Confederation, which prescribed a supermajority for a variety of federal actions, delegates debating and drafting our Constitution were acutely attuned to the problem of gridlock,” the scholars wrote. “At the Constitutional Convention, they reflected a broad agreement that the supermajority thresholds had paralyzed the young government, and in turn dismissed a supermajority proposal except for three types of votes: impeachment, treaties, and constitutional amendments.”

As the scholars explained in their letter:

“We fear it is also weakening democracy. The U.S. government is now saddled with more ‘veto points’—features in a political system that can terminate the advancement of a policy—than any other advanced democracy,” the academics added. “The result has been an inability to take action on broadly popular policies.”

The scholars pointed out that “over the last 30 years, nearly 80% of bills blocked by the filibuster were bipartisan, with the average supported by five senators from the other party; and almost a quarter of all filibustered bills in the last 16 Congresses were supported by senators who represented over 60% of the U.S. population.”

The anti-democratic nature of the filibuster was also highlighted in a video shared Tuesday by the racial justice group Color of Change. 

“This dynamic is untenable for a democracy,” the scholars wrote. “As [Alexander] Hamilton cautioned, minority vetoes in Congress would ‘destroy the energy of the government’ by keeping it in ‘a state of inaction.’ We fear that faith in our democracy will continue to decline as long as such novel roadblocks beyond what the Framers designed remain in place.”

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