• Gregory Koger

To Reform the Filibuster, Parties Need to Protect Marginal Senators

One column I often refer people to is my 2017 Vox post, 2017 is Why the Senate Filibuster Exists. It argues that marginal members of the majority party are better off with a Senate filibuster in place so they can blame the minority party for the Senate’s failure to enact the policies demanded by the base voters and organizations of the majority party. This year, I have considered re-posting the column after replacing all references to “Susan Collins” et al with “Joe Manchin.” Instead, I will make a follow-up argument: in order to make majority rule tolerable for the majority party’s most vulnerable members, President Biden and Senate Democratic leaders should commit to providing political cover for these members in the event that the Democrats make some sort of major filibuster reform.


First, let me recap the 2017 argument:

The general argument goes like this: Filibusters help members of the majority party when they are pressured to support proposals that they privately believe are bad policy or risky politics. That is, there are members of the majority party who privately believe their party’s proposals are politically dangerous or terrible policy, but they are afraid to publicly defy their party leadership. In a simple-majority legislature, these conflicted members would have to make difficult choices between their private views or personal interest and the position of their party, backed by a populist president or powerful interest groups. In a supermajority legislature, on the other hand, conflicted legislators can publicly support their party’s position while privately applauding the obstruction of the minority party.

Consider, for example, what would happen if the Democrats tried to push a $15 minimum wage through a 50-50 Senate with majority rule and united Republican opposition. Sen. Manchin would have to either provide the decisive vote for a proposal that (in his view) is too progressive for West Virginia (current minimum wage: $8.75) or be responsible for reducing the bill to, say, a $12 minimum wage. In the latter scenario, he would endure the scorn of progressives who focus on their disappointment rather than the incremental progress achieved.*


What Would An Organized Party Do?

The Democrats of 2021 may be able to help marginal members navigate this trap better than the 2017 Republicans, if only because they do not have a president who targets defectors with Twitter bombs. The key options for parties is to celebrate intra-party cooperation and to compensate marginal senators with home state support.


1. Maintain a United Front in Public

Once internal party negotiations are concluded, Democratic leaders can make sure they praise marginal legislators for helping the party arrive at a compromise that appeals to the broad middle of American politics. At the same time, they can praise progressives for their tenacity and commitment. Since these negotiations usually follow a period of “Democrats [Republicans] in disarray!” news stories as intra-party negotiations proceed, allowing the perception that the moderates “won” is probably better for the party’s image.


2. Coordinate Local Party Support

Just as Republican state parties have been publicly critical of legislators who supported the 2021 impeachment of Donald Trump, state parties could openly support senators who support intra-party compromises. This applies to both marginal and progressive members. National party leaders can coordinate with state party leadership to ensure they praise marginal senators for their support. Additionally, national party committees can funnel money to state parties to publicly advertise in support of their own senators’ contribution to these bills.**


Regardless of the tactics used, if majority parties can help marginal members navigate the tension between the policy demands of their party base and the moderate preferences of their constituents, they may find it easier to consolidate a coalition to reform the filibuster.


* It’s 2021. If you are still mad at Joe Lieberman for opposing the public option in the Affordable Care Act, I am talking about you.

** For more on how parties can reward marginal members, see Kathryn Pearson’s Party Discipline in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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