What is the purpose of the United States Senate? During a supposed breakfast meeting between founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson was said to have asked why George Washington agreed to the creation of a second, superfluous house of Congress. Washington himself replied with a question: “why did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer, before drinking?” Jefferson answered, “to cool it.” Washington thus answered Jefferson’s query, “even so, we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” More than a century later, George Frisbie Hoar described the legislative body in which he served as a place where “the deliberate will, the sober second thought of the people might find expression.”
Today, the Senate’s reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body, a place designed to represent the states and temper the will of the majority, doesn’t sit well with some folks. A legislative chamber giving New York and Alaska, Wyoming and California, the same voting power seems undemocratic and anachronistic. And then, there’s the filibuster, that great red wall, beyond which no policies shall pass. Many people, not just progressives, but also retiring senators from both parties, will tell you that the Senate is broken, and something must be done to fix it.
To the Senate’s detractors, the filibuster is a popular target. The norm, ensuring near-limitless debate on topics, motions, and nominees has changed over time. The current state of affairs, instituted by then Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Majority Whip Robert Byrd in 1970, eliminated the need for actual, talking filibusters almost entirely. A senator need only threaten to filibuster— so long as he had at least 40 of his friends to back him up (increased from 34 in 1975)— for action on a motion to be halted. With no political cost (or physical stress) required to speak endlessly, filibusters took off from then on, then exploded around the turn of the century.
Senate majorities from both parties have nicked and chipped away at these provisions since, as political expediency and frustration with an unruly minority required. Republicans threatened to go nuclear on judicial nominees in 2005, Democrats did in 2013. Republicans then extended the “nuclear option” to Supreme Court nominees in 2017, guaranteeing the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Several presidential candidates, from the “Fight Club” wing of the Democratic Party, have campaigned on the filibuster’s total abolition. Even President Trump tweeted back in December at Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to “use the Nuclear Option” to end the government shutdown and get his wall.
Every Democratic president since Grover Cleveland in 1892 has either inherited or taken the Senate when first elected to the White House. It therefore seems likely that the next Democratic electoral victory will result in the elimination, or substantial curtailing, of the filibuster to make passage of the president’s agenda easier. This would be short-sighted. It begs the question that the Senate preventing the majority will from trampling over the minority’s rights is a problem, or that the institution is broken because of it.
Transforming the Senate from saucer to rubber stamp would be inconsistent with the high-minded nature of the chamber, whose rules and procedures are geared toward fostering consensus, rather than naked partisan interests. It would also be in conflict with republican government and blur the lines of the separation of powers. For, in a democracy, the majority rules; in a republic, the minority is protected from the majority. The Senate was designed with this in mind. While frequently frustrating, far from being broken, the Senate is acting entirely as intended.