It's difficult to weigh this counterintuitive benefit of the filibuster against its obvious democratic costs. Fortunately, however, retaining the filibuster in its current form and eliminating it are not the only options. Indeed, politically speaking, abolishing the filibuster outright may not be an option at all. Instead, then, frustrated progressives should propose to simply reduce the 60-vote threshold. Such a change could preclude many of the most tyrannical minority filibusters while retaining most of the filibusters that enable national majorities to exercise a democratic veto.
After all, the larger a Senate majority is, the more likely it is to represent a majority of Americans. So if 55 votes were required to break a filibuster, rather than 60, many filibusters would be prevented—but most of the filibusters that block unrepresentative Senate majorities would be preserved. The evidence from the past 18 years bears out this theory. With a 55-vote threshold, 60 percent of the "minority rule" filibusters would have been prevented, but 78 percent of the "majority rule" filibusters would have remained intact.
Even if it is interpreted conservatively, this historical thought experiment illustrates a crucial point. If lowering the cloture threshold represents a compromise relative to the principled goal of abolishing the filibuster, it is not nearly as large a compromise as we might have thought. Despite the conventional wisdom, many of the filibusters that would remain with a reduced cloture threshold would be perfectly consistent with majority rule—and a small-d democrat should generally applaud these, not regret them. At the very least, those who would abolish the filibuster for ordinary legislation should consider retaining it, with a reduced cloture threshold, for approval of presidential nominees. Because the House of Representatives has no say in these cases, filibusters can impose a vital democratic check on narrow Senate majorities that represent a minority of the American people.
The fact that the conversation over Washington's paralysis is turning to institutional reforms is a hopeful sign. As this discussion gets under way, however, reformers should remember that the filibuster sometimes protects the kind of majority rule that it is usually assumed to undercut. We should do what we can to preserve this democratic function. That might mean pursuing the kind of moderate compromise—simply reducing the number of votes needed to end a filibuster—that has the best chance of succeeding anyway.