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Thune: Democrats Threaten to Change 200-Year-Old Senate Practice for Political Gain

“The legislative filibuster is the Senate rule that has had perhaps the greatest effect in preserving the Founders’ vision of the Senate.”

September 15, 2020

Washington — 

U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today expressed his disappointment in the idea that Democrats would consider changing the Senate’s 200-year-old practice on the legislative filibuster. The filibuster is one of the most prominent rules that distinguishes the Senate from the House of Representatives and requires the consensus of at least 60 senators before the body can vote on a contentious bill. Thune discussed several recent examples of Senate Democrats using the legislative filibuster this year alone when it suited their needs as the minority party.


Excerpts of Thune’s remarks below:

“Mr. President, on Friday NBC News reported, and I quote, “Democratic insiders are assembling a coalition behind the scenes to wage an all-out war on the Senate filibuster in bullish anticipation of sweeping the 2020 election.”

“It was disturbing confirmation that the campaign by some Democrats to eliminate the Senate’s nearly 200-year-old practice for considering legislation has become official. 

“And it puts in stark contrast the choice voters will face in November.

“So what is the legislative filibuster?

“It is the product of the Senate’s tradition of unlimited debate.

“The legislative filibuster is essentially the requirement that 60 senators agree before the Senate can end debate and vote on a contentious bill. 

“In other words, you need 60 percent of the Senate to agree before you can pass a bill.

“What this means in practice is that unlike in the House of Representatives, where legislation can easily pass with the support of just one party, in the Senate you generally need the support of at least some members of the other party before you can pass legislation.

“Nowadays the Senate’s filibuster rule could be said to be the primary thing that distinguishes the Senate from the House of Representatives.

“And that matters because the Senate is SUPPOSED to be different from the House of Representatives.

“The framers of the Constitution designed the Senate to be, as the minority leader once said – alluding to the legendary exchange between Washington and Jefferson – “the cooling saucer of democracy.”

“Wary of – to quote Federalist 62 – “the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions,” the Founders created the Senate as a check on the House of Representatives.

“They made the Senate smaller and senators’ terms of office longer, with the intention of creating a more stable, more thoughtful, and more deliberative legislative body to check ill-considered or intemperate legislation.

“And as time has gone on, the legislative filibuster is the Senate rule that has had perhaps the greatest impact in preserving the Founders’ vision of the Senate.

“Thanks to the filibuster, it’s often harder to get legislation through the Senate than through the House.

“It requires more thought, more debate, and greater consensus.

“And those are good things.

“Historically, senators of both parties have recognized this.

“They’ve seen beyond the narrow partisan advantage of a moment and fought for the preservation of the filibuster.

“In 2005, when there was talk of abolishing the judicial filibuster, Democrat senators – some of whom serve in this body today – fought fiercely to safeguard it.

“At a rally in March of that year, the current Democrat leader said, and I quote, “They believe if you get 51% of the vote, there should be one party rule.  We will stand in their way!  Because an America of checks and balances is the America we love.  It’s the America the Founding Fathers created.  It’s been the America that’s kept us successful for 200 years and we’re not gonna let them change it! … We will fight, and we will preserve the Constitution.”

“Unfortunately, Democrats changed their tune a few years later when they thought abolishing the judicial filibuster would serve their advantage. 

“But even then, Democrats – and later Republicans – sought to distinguish between confirming nominees and the importance of preserving debate on legislation.

“Yet now they’re talking about abolishing the fundamental practice of the Senate, the legislative filibuster, for the same prospect of temporary partisan gain.

“‘Nothing’s off the table,’ the minority leader said, when asked about Democrats’ intentions for the legislative filibuster if they win the Senate.

“Mr. President, eliminating the legislative filibuster would permanently change the nature of the Senate.

“The ‘cooling saucer’ the Founders envisioned would essentially be gone.

“And the one-party rule the Democrat leader decried in 2005 would become a reality.

“Some might ask why one-party rule is a problem.

“After all, sometimes one party wins the Senate, the House, and the presidency.

“Shouldn’t that party be able to pass whatever legislation it wants?

“Well, no, Mr. President.

“Our country is relatively evenly split down the middle, with the advantage sometimes moving to the Republicans and sometimes to the Democrats.

“But even if one party were a permanent minority in this country, one-party rule still wouldn’t be acceptable.

“Let me go back to the Federalist Papers for a minute.

“Federalist 10 and 51 discuss two issues that the Founders were concerned about – minority rights and the tyranny of the majority.

“While we tend to think of tyrants as single individuals, the Founders recognized that a majority could be tyrannical as well.

“And so the Founders created a system of government designed to prevent a tyrannical majority from running roughshod over the rights of the minority.

“And one of those checks was the Senate.

“And today the legislative filibuster may be the single most important thing preserving the Senate’s constitutional role as a check on majority tyranny.

“By requiring 60 votes, the filibuster ensures that any legislation has to take into account the views of a broad group of senators.

“With a 60-vote threshold, you’re unlikely to get your legislation passed unless you bring some senators of the opposite party on board.

“And that means the minority party has a real role in shaping legislation in the Senate – something the minority party in the House lacks.

“Democrats have repeatedly used the legislative filibuster to their advantage during this Congress.

“In March, Democrats filibustered our largest coronavirus relief bill, the CARES Act, until Republicans agreed to add some Democrat priorities.

“And Democrats quickly took credit for making the bill better.

“You would think Democrats would want to preserve this influence – especially now that Democrats have experienced the consequences of their decision to abolish the judicial filibuster.

“Of course, when they say they want to abolish the legislative filibuster, Democrats mean that they want to abolish the legislative filibuster if they win a majority in November.

“They have a lot of legislation they want to pass, and they don’t want to have to moderate that legislation to address Republicans’ – or Americans’ – concerns. 

“But I would remind my colleagues that no one is in power forever.

“And if Democrats do win in November and abolish the legislative filibuster, they may quickly come to regret that decision once they’re in the minority again.

“Because no matter how permanent a majority thinks it will be, sooner or later every majority party returns to minority status.

“Mr. President, in addition to doing away with the bipartisan nature of the Senate, ending the legislative filibuster would also erode the stability of government. 

“Legislation would become more partisan, because the majority would not have to take into account the opinions of the minority party.

“And that would make legislation more likely to be reversed as soon as the opposite party gained the majority in a future Congress.  

“Without the legislative filibuster, it’s not hard to see a future in which national policy on a host of issues could fluctuate wildly every few years.

“Taxes could go up and down on a regular basis.

“Government programs could be stopped and started every few years.

“The consequences for individuals, businesses, and our economy would not just be unpleasant, but potentially devastating.

“Mr. President, I understand the frustration of my Democrat colleagues.

“I’ve been in the minority in the Senate.

“I also know what it’s like when you get into the majority and can’t pass everything you want because the minority party will filibuster your bills.

“I’ve certainly had moments when I wished we could just pass legislation with a simple majority.

“Democrats have stood in the way of a lot of legislation I’d like to have passed this year – from Senator Scott’s police reform bill to additional coronavirus relief to pro-life legislation.

“It’s also important to note that not every filibuster has been undertaken for noble purposes. 

“Like every tool, it can be misused.

“But I know that no matter how frustrating the filibuster may be in the moment, preserving it is essential to preserving this institution of the Senate and the purpose for which it was created.

“It’s essential to protecting minority rights. 

“And it’s an essential check on tyrannical majorities that would seek to curtail our freedoms.

“Mr. President, legend has it that when Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention, someone approached him and asked him what form of government the convention had instituted.

“‘A republic,’ Franklin said, ‘if you can keep it.’

“‘If you can keep it.’

“Mr. President, today the legislative filibuster is the key rule preserving the Senate’s constitutional role as a check on partisan passion.

“I pray that no future Senate will destroy the Senate’s essential role in our system of government for temporary partisan gain.”