Why the Senate Must Abolish the Filibuster

In 1957, racist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond filibustered a civil-rights bill. He spoke on the floor for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes. (AP)

We find ourselves suffering political paralysis despite all that suggested the opposite.

We have unified government. There was  a mandate of 81 million Biden-Harris votes. Yet Congress cannot even pass the organizing resolution to put leaders onto committees. How do popular priorities like immigration reform and vote protection remain frozen?

It’s because the Senate won’t end the filibuster, a bit of parliamentary nonsense that gives a minority of senators a veto over most legislative proposals.

I’ve been screaming this: If Congress passes the Biden-Harris priority bills by ending the filibuster, Democratic majorities in Congress will grow and so will bipartisanship.

Getting those bills into law is America’s best chance to protect our democracy from the looming threat of overthrow.

Even internal Republican surveys found, “Increasing funding for veterans’ mental health services, strengthening and preserving Medicare and Social Security, and reforming the student loan system all scored higher than Trump’s favored subjects of tax cuts, border security, and preserving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.” And large majorities support ending workplace anti-LGBT discrimination (83%) and “a government-wide approach to equity, civil rights, racial justice and equal opportunity” (77%).

Those priorities will die on the table unless the new Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) seizes the moment. If he fails to deliver, Democrats will look like weaklings who abandoned voters and broke promises.

Helping Republican Extremists

That’s how Republicans keep winning control back, despite a track record of economic disaster and despised policies. And that’s how they’re able to become more and more extreme. Armed with the filibuster, they have no opposition that can deliver change.

In contrast, by ending the filibuster, Schumer’s Senate can build support by passing legislation that betters voters’ lives. Make the opposition compete on that turf, and see what happens to the pack of howling extremists.

Republicans, and some Democrats, treat the modern-day “stealth filibuster” (60 votes required to end debate, known as “cloture”) as a national sacrament breathed from the Founders’ very nostrils.

Incorrect.

It’s a later development, linked chronologically to the abandonment of post-Civil-War Reconstruction and deployed by white supremacists to thwart Black civil rights in the 1960s.

How to Do It

But does Schumer’s slim majority have the power to end the filibuster? Absolutely. But it’s a bit tricky. The filibuster arises from the principle that the Senate may vote only after debate closes. There are three ways to close debate:

Current Senate rules require 60 votes for cloture, which ends debate and allows the bill to proceed to a vote. Changing a Senate rule requires 67 votes.

So why are we having this talk? There aren’t 67 Senate Democrats, so why is McConnell daring Democrats to end the filibuster?

There is a technical reason and a practical reason.

The technical reason is that a simple Senate majority – 50 Democrats plus the Democratic vice president – can pass procedural changes as “precedents,” which are binding until Republicans have the votes to reverse them. That could end the filibuster (at least through midterms).

But the practical reason is that once Biden-Harris priorities become law, Republicans will be unable to win national elections. McConnell knows most Republican voters are not wealthy – they “go against their own interests” because he abuses the filibuster’s gridlocking effect.

Democratic leaders—Schumer especially—believe that if they are patient and gentle, Republicans will compromise and let their bills pass.

Ready to Pounce

But Republicans won’t budge. With the filibuster in place, Republicans have strong incentives to obstruct. String Democrats along by dangling poison-pill “compromises”! Wheedle for civility and bipartisanship! Suddenly, two years have passed and Republicans win midterms by claiming: “Do-nothing Democrats! They promised huge change, and they gave you zero!”

The Democrats’ North Star should be this: The party that wants change and progress never benefits from the filibuster. Conversely, the party that wants status quo or regression always benefits from the filibuster.

So let’s stop whining “if we remove the filibuster, Republicans will hurt us when they get back in.” In reality, the threat to roll back popular legislation is a strong basis for Democrats’ midterm campaigns to expand their majority. And that threat could even make moderate Republicans viable in primaries. Rules did not deter Trump and McConnell from hurting ordinary Americans, and their filibuster-armed party will not voluntarily become less obstructive.

To quote political analyst Jared Yates Sexton: “Radicalization has its own momentum.” We can only fight momentum with counter-momentum. It is not only Democrats but sober-thinking Republicans who recognize the pit our nation will be swept into if the filibuster continues to disable Democrats from governing and opens an anarchic vacuum.

In contrast, if Democratic leaders restore simple-majority bill passage of bills that change voters’ lives for the better, Republicans won’t get control back unless their party is wholly recast. No one will want them except their tiny, shriveled up white supremacist base. And that’s not enough to win.

That is why Schumer must lead the Senate to end the filibuster by 51-vote precedent. Such is the path to true democracy at its finest level of practice. No one will miss the filibuster. It is a tool of hate and regression, and its day is over.

Pass great laws. Help the American people. Meet our needs. The voters will enthusiastically follow.

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