Neither Filibustering Nor the U.S. Senate Protects Minority Interests

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Aug. 20 2013 10:23 AM

Neither Filibustering Nor the U.S. Senate Protects Minority Interests

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Members of the House of Representativs leave the U.S. Capitol as Congress begins its summer recess on Aug. 2, 2013

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Richard Arenberg has an op-ed in Politico defending the 60-vote threshold for passing a measure in the Senate that, based on his credentials, seems like it'd be interesting. He has decades of service in Congress. He's teaching at Brown. But no. The whole thing hinges on the idea that filibustering defends minority interests and prevents the "tyranny of the majority." But this is simply wrong. The problem of the tyranny of the majority is the problem that minority groups in society might see their interests trampled. But protecting the interests of the political party that lost the last election doesn't achieve this goal.

Most people aren't Jehovah's Witnesses, and Jehovah's Witnesses are mildly annoying when they go door-to-door prosyletizing, so you might see a proposal to trample on Jehovah's Witnesses interests by banning them from knocking on doors. In this case, the filibuster would defend the interests of a minority group because it makes it harder to pass laws.

On the other hand, most people aren't gay and some straight people think gay sex is immoral, so gay people may be subject to discrimination in employment and other venues. You might see a proposal to advance gay interests by banning employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In that case, the filibuster harms the interests of a minority group because it makes it harder to pass laws.

Which is to say that making it harder to pass laws simply makes it harder to pass laws. It has nothing in particular to do with majoritarianism or minority interests or anything else. It's a status quo measure. To the extent that you think the status quo is great, then maybe you love a 60 vote threshold. Maybe you think it should be raised to 65 or 75 or 95. Or maybe instead of a bicameral legislature we should have a four-chamber legislature. It's easy to think of new ways to make it harder to change the laws. But that's the issue. Making it hard to change laws systematically preserves the advantages of whatever groups are advantaged by the status quo.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.