Filibuster Follies: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Contributed by Amara Willey.

We all know this: once the Democrats have used their three free ‘get out of jail’ cards (i.e., the budget reconciliation process that has been approved by the Senate Parliamentarian), no other progressive legislation is going to pass the Congress. With Democrats fighting to keep their seats under new voter suppression laws, mid-term get out the vote issues, and the Census redistricting, keeping a majority in Congress will take a miracle.

The filibuster is a Senate rule that results in the need for at least 60 members to pass legislation that Democrats can’t use reconciliation for, such as the minimum wage increase.

Vote Save America, a website operated by former Obama staffers, strongly supports ending the filibuster so that more progressive legislation for jobs, education, true voting reform, and pretty much anything else that can’t be incorporated in one of the reconciliation bills can move forward.

As long as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is opposed to ending the filibuster (“There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster”), we will have to find a different way. Sen. Manchin did say he was open to changing the process and possibly bringing back the “talking filibuster.”

Manchin has indicated that his view is meant to get Democrats and Republicans working together in the Senate.

“The time has come to end these political games,” the Washington Post reported Manchin saying. His hope is “to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.”

David French, author of Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, also believes that abolishing the filibuster would be a serious mistake because it “would enhance partisan polarization and increase political instability.”

“When I was researching my book, Divided We Fall, which argues that America is in the grip of cultural and political trends that could tear it apart, I discovered that thoughtful progressives and thoughtful conservatives each suffered from different, deep fears about our political future,” French wrote in Time Magazine. “Progressives feared minoritarian rule. Conservatives feared majoritarian domination. Ending the filibuster, perversely enough, makes both fears more real.”

He argues that doing away with the filibuster would only be a temporary solution to the impasse in Congress and could give a minority party too much power next time they hold the majority, which could be as early as the midterm elections.

French’s alternative approach is to decentralize, giving states more rights, or in his words, “let California be California and let Tennessee be Tennessee.”

Democrats did away with the filibuster for judicial nominations in 2013, then lost the Senate. Republicans followed suit, eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court justices in 2017. Mitch McConnell has threatened repercussions should the Democrats eliminate the filibuster for legislation.

Manchen is not the only senator opposed to ending the filibuster. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) told the Wall Street Journal: “When you have a place that’s broken and not working, and many would say that’s the Senate today, I don’t think the solution is to erode the rules,” Sinema said. “I think the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”

That’s certainly an admirable opinion, but it seems a little naïve. Meanwhile the Republicans are working on a local level to rig federal elections further. Without ending or at least reforming the filibuster, it’s unlikely that H.R.1 For the People Act is going to become law or that we will see a federal minimum wage change.

Here are some ways the voting processes could be reformed in the Senate:

  • The “present and voting” approach would allow three-fifths (or 60) of those present to support cloture and end debate. For example, If all 50 Democrats could call a vote at 3 a.m., 34 Republican senators would have to show up to block it. This process was in effect from 1917 to 1975.
  • Another approach would require 41 votes to sustain a filibuster. Currently it takes 60 senators to end a filibuster with cloture, in essence assuming that the rest of the votes are “no’s.” Here, 41 opposing senators would have to stay on the floor in order to continue the filibuster.
  • The “talking filibuster” requires that Senators continue speaking without a break, though they can yield the floor to other members who can continue to talk. This type of filibuster can disrupt Congress for several weeks but does eventually end. This has been used effectively to run out the clock when Congress is nearing a recess.

Manchin’s concern is that the minority still needs to have a voice, which might be prudent for times when Democrats aren’t in power. “You have to give the minority the ability to object or involve themselves,” Manchin said.

Call to Action:

Go to this website to see what your Senator thinks about the filibuster and to contact them with your opinion:

Democratic Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania gets a star from this site for his support of ending the filibuster.

The senators from New Jersey are both in favor of reforming, but not ending, the filibuster.


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