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Changing the Rules

Fair play means you must agree to rules in advance. Both sides may agree to update rules, but not change them partway through.


On the first business day of the new year, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to fellow Senators saying that the nation faces a constitutional crisis over voting rights.

We hope our Republican colleagues change course and work with us. But if they do not, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

And later, the President of the United States, a former Senator himself, agreed:

Today I’m making it clear: To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed — (applause) — to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.  (Applause.)  

When it comes to protecting majority rule in America, the majority should rule in the United States Senate. 

Remarks by President Biden on Protecting the Right to Vote, January 11, 2022, Atlanta, Georgia

Changing the Senate rules is nothing new, and in fact is part of the rule-making itself. The complex rules are based on precedent, rulings from the chair, customary agreements, and informal arrangements developed over more than a century. They’ve changed and adapted over the years. So what’s to stop them from changing again today?

Tyranny of the majority

Any change to Senate rules would apply to all subsequent legislation before the Senate. It’s not to be taken lightly.

The rules Schumer is probably talking about are the filibuster and cloture. The first allows for extended debate to prevent or prolong a vote on an act. The second sets a three-fifths majority required to end a filibuster.

Filibusters are rarely as dramatic as the one Jimmy Stewart’s Senator Jefferson Smith attempts in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” shown here. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a Democrat, holds the record. He railed against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes.

Sooner or later, though, both sides will use them when they are in the minority.

Minority rights are part of what make our government a republic instead of a straight democracy. Rules like the Electoral College, a separate House and Senate, presidential vetoes, and other checks and balances protect against the tyranny of the majority.

Minorities must be respected. But minorities are not always about national or racial or ethnic or religious or gender identities. Sometimes they are whole political parties. And sometimes they are a party of one, like Senator Smith.