The filibuster, however, has undergone little-noticed changes. Even as successive generations have weakened it by creating the option of cloture, the filibuster itself has become more present in everyday legislative maneuvering. The political scientist David Mayhew argues that we’ve misremembered our own past on this matter. He’s written that Senate has never faced “any anti-majoritarian barrier as concrete, as decisive, or as consequential as today’s rule of 60.”
That seems strange, of course. After all, the filibuster was stronger back in the day. But it wasn’t used to create a de facto 60-vote majority. It used to be more akin to a temper tantrum. Mayhew looked at FDR’s court-packing scheme as one of his examples. The filibuster hardly figured into the discussion. “General opinion is that the [bill] will pass,” wrote the conservative Portland Herald Press, “and sooner than expected, since votes to pass it seem apparent, and the opposition cannot filibuster forever.”
Its elevation to the decisive rule in the U.S. Senate is a recent development, and one that has taken a countermajoritarian institution (both in its structure and representation) and saddled it with a supermajority requirement. The product is an almost impossibly obstructed legislative body. We tend to assume this will work out fine, as we’ve had the filibuster forever, and we’re still around. But the evidence is that the filibuster did not really exist in this form before, and so it’s very hard to say whether it will work out fine. And those who think that the political system will always respond to emergency, and that countermajoritarian rules don’t matter, should really take a look at what’s going on right now in California.