A Madisonian Proposal for Filibuster Reform

The Senate side of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., September 28, 2023. (Astrid Riecken/Washington Post/Getty Images)

During the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, as the Constitution’s framers debated the proper design of the Senate, James Madison remarked: “In order to judge of the form to be given to this institution, it will be proper to take a view of the ends to be served by it.” One of the ends of the Senate, Madison explained, was to protect against “impetuous counsels.” By staffing the Senate with citizens of great stature and granting them lengthy terms in office, Madison laid out how the Senate could be a place of slow and reasoned deliberation. By slowing the pace of politics, the Senate would help ensure that reason—not passion—would shape our public policy.

There was something missing from Madison’s summary of how the Senate would become, to paraphrase George Washington’s famous (and perhaps apocryphal) quip, a sort of “cooling saucer”: the filibuster. Madison figured the Senate could promote reason and deliberation in our politics without a supermajority voting requirement. In fact, Madison expressly rejected proposals for a supermajority voting requirement in the new federal legislature. As he wrote in Federalist No. 58

It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required for a quorum; and in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision. That some advantages might have resulted from such a precaution, cannot be denied. It might have been an additional shield to some particular interests, and another obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures. But these considerations are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale.

In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority.

You're out of free articles
Create an account to unlock 1 more articles
By signing up with your email, you agree to The Dispatch’s privacy policy and terms and conditions
Already have an account? Sign In
Comments (59)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More