Breaking the Saucer?

Michael Metzger

Don’t give a flip about changing the Senate’s filibuster rules? You might reconsider.

Over the last year, the Biden Administration has proposed changing the Senate’s filibuster rules. It currently takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Currently only 50 senators are Democrats. Reducing the number to 50 to would break more than the filibuster. It’d break a historic saucer.

How’s that?

The Federalist Papers show America’s founders were concerned about curbing and containing what Hamilton feared: the “passions of the people.” Checks and balances were established to “prevent the rabble from passing sweeping new legislation in response to some passion of the moment.” The founders conceived a Senate as “the saucer into which the nation’s passions are poured to cool” (Washington memorably told Thomas Jefferson this was to “cool” House legislation as a saucer cools hot tea).

Changing the filibuster rules to 50 senators would break our historic saucer. This event was at least postponed when on January 20 a vote to change Senate rules was defeated. But don’t think this issue will now go away. Attempts by Progressives to change the filibuster rules have been going on for over 100 years.

The first was in 1917, during the Administration of President Woodrow Wilson, a Progressive who, as Progressives are wont to do, often felt constitutional checks and balance were a nuisance when they got in the way of his enlightened leadership. He pushed and got senators to adopt a rule allowing the Senate to invoke cloture (a method for ending debate and bringing a question to a vote) with a two-thirds majority vote. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture to 60.

Reducing the number further to 50 might sound appealing, but that would mean the 60-vote threshold for legislation and the 67-vote threshold for rules changes go out the window. Instead of legislators talking to one another across the aisle, a simple majority will be able to rule, which opens the door to mob rule. Doubt it? Look at California.

In 1911, California adopted a direct democracy model (as opposed to our national model of representative democracy). Direct democracy features three tools: Referendums, recalls, and initiatives (called “propositions”) in which voters become legislators, since a successful initiative becomes law. There is no need to filibuster.

This opened the door to a rabble of existing property-owners passing sweeping new legislation in 1978 (Proposition 13) in response to being mad-as-hell at California’s spiraling tax increases. It’s mob rule, as property-owners before Prop 13 (a minority of the state’s population today) have kept their tax rates low while new property owners since 1978 (a majority of the state’s population today) have seen their rates soar. California’s direct democracy is not a system intended to contain minority factions. Instead, it encourages special interests to wage war by ballot. Madison and Hamilton, advocates of representative democracy, would have been horrified.

So should Christians. Augustine claimed that Christians make the best kinds of citizens.[1] They understand (or ought to understand) how politics without checks and balances invariably leads to mob rule. How many Christians today recognize this?

My sense is not many. Too many Christians today are politicized—skewed far to the Right or the Left. Politicization blinds people on the far Right and Left to how changing the Senate’s filibuster rules will likely lead to mob rule.

At least Ben Sasse, a Christian, recognizes this. On January 13, the US Senator from Nebraska shared these words on the Senate floor:

“There’s a place of course where simple majorities rule. It’s right down that hallway. We have a House of Representatives already. Does anybody want to make the argument that that place is healthier than we are because it is a simple majoritarian body? . . . The Senate is supposed to be the place where passions are tempered and refined by people who are responsible for thinking beyond our next election, which is why every election cycle in America only has one-third of senators even up for re-election. That’s the whole reason we have six-year terms…

If you get rid of the filibuster, you will turn the Senate into the House and you will ensure that this body, too, ends up consumed by demagogues, conspiracists and clowns… The American people are not fans of these political parties. Getting rid of the filibuster means you don’t have to try to talk to people on the other side of the aisle and get to a 60-vote threshold for legislation or a 67-vote threshold for rules changes. It means that one of these two terrible parties gets to do a lot more stuff a lot faster.”

Amen. Changing the Senate’s filibuster rules will likely lead to one or the other political party undermining our experiment in self-government a lot faster.

We should give a flip about this.


[1] “Soulcraft, Citizenship, and Churchcraft: The View From Hippo,” in Cultivating Citizens, eds. Dwight Allman and Michael Beaty, (Lexington Books, 2002), 29-42.


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