The Case for the Filibuster

Another attempt to change Senate rules on cutting off debate has failed. Senator Anderson's proposal to reduce the majority needed to invoke cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths of those present and voting went down in the face of a predictable Southern filibuster which tied up all legislative business for nearly a month.

By defeating this proposal, Vice-President Johnson and the Southerners did liberals an unwitting favor. Liberals should question whether a rule designed to protect all minorities should be weakened to assist one. How much help that particular minority can get in the future from such a change is a moot question.

The issue raises a conflict between two fundamental democratic tenets: that the will of the majority should prevail, and that minorities should be protected against misrule by force of numbers. The present Senate two-thirds rule strikes a happy numerical compromise between complete majoritarianism and one-man veto.

The value of unlimited debate is not so much that it allows free expression as that it gives a desperate minority power to obstruct a majority which feels less strongly about the issue at stake. This is not a power which is used lightly; there have been few frivolous filibusters and almost none have succeeded. In most legislation the will of the majority prevails. But when a minority feels so imperiled by a bill that it is willing both to undergo an exhausting physical strain and to risk the wrath of fellow legislators by filibustering, it can do so. Free Senate debate is the only American political institution which takes into account not only the numerical support a proposal has, but also the intensity of the feelings of those deliberating it.

What has distorted liberal thinking on this question is that free debate has been used almost exclusively to obstruct civil rights legislation. Such legislation now appears much less crucial to the cause of Negro equality than it previously seemed to be.

In the important areas of conflict--such as the registration of Negro voters, housing, school desegregation, and private discrimination--the courts, the Executive, and Negro citizens themselves, have shown that progress can be made without Congressional legislation.

The future of minority groups now depends upon Presidential and private action. Liberals should realize that a change in Senate rules cannot promise the millenium in civil rights. It doesn't. The battle will be won outside the halls of a Congress inhibited by conservative attitudes from ever passing, by any majority, more than mild civil rights legislation.

In considering the two-thirds rule, liberals should think more about future possibilities than about past defeats. As the Telstar debate demonstrated, occasions may arise when groups other than Southerners will feel threatened by unchecked majority rule. With the importance of legislation to civil rights declining, liberals should be exceedingly wary of tampering with an institution which protects the fundamental liberal principle of minority rights.

(A minority opinion on changing the Senate rules will appear in tomorrow's CRIMSON.)