Over 350 academics joined as signatories on a letter in support of filibuster reform in the U.S. Senate, with hopes that a clear history of the parliamentary procedure can better inform the debate surrounding its future.
The Open Letter on the History, Impact, and Future of the Filibuster -- organized by the nonprofit organization Protect Democracy -- brought together historians, political scientists and other scholars to clear up misconceptions about the filibuster.
“Historians don't usually weigh in on every current policy issue, because history doesn't really tell us what we should do in the present -- it just informs,” said Seth Cotlar, a history professor at Willamette University and signer of the letter. “But the discussion around the filibuster always seemed to contain a bunch of assumptions about the history of the filibuster that were pretty incorrect.”
Grant Tudor, policy advocate at Protect Democracy, said the organization's officials set out to close the information gap when they noticed a difference between public discourse and what scholars wrote and said about the filibuster. The result was a letter with three key messages: the filibuster isn’t original to the Constitution, its existence is weakening Congress and the status quo is posing a risk to democracy.
The letter states the framers of the Constitution "explicitly rejected a supermajority requirement for common legislation" and notes the filibuster wasn't developed until the early 19th century, partly by pro-slavery senators who wanted to protect slaveholder interests. The consistent need for a supermajority to pass routine legislation has only emerged in recent decades, contributing to decreased legislative productivity and a shift in policy making from the legislative branch to the executive branch, according to the letter.
“Having a good-faith debate requires relying on a shared set of facts,” Tudor said. “It was our intention that a letter from scholars and historians who have long studied the filibuster would contribute to that.”