Joe Manchin Is Right: Reform the Filibuster

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package passed by a razor-thin majority in the Senate. Because of the current 50-50 makeup of the Senate—with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tie breaking vote when necessary—Democrats had to use the budget reconciliation process, which allows a bare majority to pass certain legislation. However, the rest of his legislative agenda is very much in doubt, given that it can’t be passed using the same method. This has led to some to call for the complete elimination of the filibuster, which necessitates 60 votes for the passage of most bills.

Biden himself has resisted calls to end the filibuster, but they are mounting. Even West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, the “King of the Senate,” recently floated “reforming” the filibuster, rather than ending it. His reasoning is simple: “The filibuster should be painful … and we’ve made it more comfortable over the years,” but that it should also preserve the “involvement of the minority.”

Manchin is right. The modern filibuster was the result of happenstance and it creates perverse incentives that degrade our institutions. It ought to be reformed to preserve the ability of the minority’s voice to be relevant, and to inflict political cost on the majority, without permanently thwarting the majority’s will. Intelligent conservatives ought to support him.

The history of the filibuster fills entire books. But the essentials aren’t difficult: The filibuster came about in what amounted to a mistake when rules changes in the Senate inadvertently allowed for endless debate. Using endless debate to derail legislation became a rarely used, but still lionized, tradition. Most Americans probably recognize it from the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which Jimmy Stewart played an idealistic freshman senator who held forth on the Senate floor for a full 24 hours to prevent a vote on a bill that he deemed corrupt.       

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