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Good morning. Why is there a big debate over the filibuster? Because it benefits one political party much more than the other.
If you examine the history of the filibuster — a Senate rule requiring a supermajority vote on many bills, rather than a straight majority — you will quickly notice something: It has benefited the political right much more than the left.
In the 1840s (before the term “filibuster” existed), Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina used the technique to protect slavery.
Over the next century, Southern Democrats repeatedly used the filibuster to prevent Black Americans from voting and to defeat anti-lynching bills.
From the 1950s through the 1990s, Senate Republicans, working with some conservative Democrats, blocked the passage of laws that would have helped labor unions organize workers.
Over the past two decades, the filibuster has enabled Republicans to defeat a long list of progressive bills, on climate change, oil subsidies, campaign finance, Wall Street regulation, corporate offshoring, gun control, immigration, gender pay equality and Medicare expansion.
The early days of Joe Biden’s presidency, with the Democrats narrowly controlling the Senate, have intensified a debate over whether the party should eliminate the filibuster. If Senate Democrats did, they could try to pass many bills — say, on climate change, voting rights, Medicare expansion and tax increases on the rich — with 51 votes, rather than 60.
As part of the debate, many observers have pointed out that both parties have used the filibuster, and both could suffer from its demise. Democrats, for example, filibustered some of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, as well as abortion restrictions and an estate-tax cut. A Senate without the current filibuster really would cause problems for Democrats at times.
On balance, however, there is no question about which party benefits more from the filibuster. Republicans do, and it’s not close.
The dictionary test
This makes sense, too. Consider the words conservative and progressive. A conservative tends to prefer the status quo, while a progressive often favors change. “The filibuster is a tool to preserve the status quo and makes it harder to make change,” Adam Jentleson, a former Democratic Senate aide and the author of “Kill Switch,” a new book on the filibuster, told me. (I’m reading the book now and recommend it.)
Jentleson documents that the country’s founders did not intend for most legislation to require a supermajority and that the filibuster emerged only in the 1800s. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison both wrote passionate defenses of simple majority rule. They protected minority rights by creating a government — with a president, two legislative chambers and a judiciary — in which making a law even with simple majorities was onerous.
“What at first sight may seem a remedy,” Hamilton wrote, referring to supermajority rule, “is, in reality, a poison.” If a majority could not govern, he explained, it would lead to “tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.”
The filibuster isn’t going anywhere yet. Some past Democratic supporters of the filibuster — like Senator Jon Tester of Montana and Biden himself — have said they might consider eliminating it if Republicans continued to reject compromise. Others — like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — say they remain opposed.
But the issue won’t be decided in the abstract, as the Republican strategist Liam Donovan has noted. When the Senate is next considering a specific bill that has the support of a majority but not a supermajority, that will be the crucial moment.
Related: Jamelle Bouie, a Times Opinion columnist, has made cases for scrapping the filibuster. In The Washington Post, Carl Levin, a former senator, and Richard Arenberg have made the case for keeping it. And Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution has described how it might be reformed.
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Lives Lived: After a bicycle accident left her paralyzed in 2003, the feminist scholar Christina Crosby wrote a memoir, “A Body, Undone,” which explored pain and refused to draw tidy lessons about overcoming hardship. She died at 67.
ARTS AND IDEAS
The price of college
The list price at selective private colleges approaches a mind-blowing $80,000 a year, and it’s not far behind for out-of-state students at some public colleges in the U.S. But as Ron Lieber, a personal-finance columnist for The Times, notes, “list prices are increasingly irrelevant for most families.”
Middle-class and low-income students typically receive large scholarships — and can receive larger ones if they have excellent grades in high school. Even affluent students can receive a lot of financial aid with top grades.
Ron has just published a book that tries to explain the maddeningly complex subject of college finances, called “The Price You Pay for College.” In it, he makes a fascinating point: Many parents talk in great detail with their children about the ways in which sports can earn them college acceptances and scholarships.
Yet athletics are not the best route to a scholarship for most students, Ron writes. Academics are. “Each spring, I hear from otherwise well-informed parents of high school seniors who had no idea that this so-called merit aid existed, let alone how to predict where good grades might yield the lowest price or the best value,” Ron told me. “I wanted to make sure that families knew all about it, much sooner.”
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