The Filibuster Has Broken Congress: It’s Time to End It

Stephen Prager, Staff Writer

Last week, Joe Manchin (D-WV) published an opinion piece in the Washington Post forcefully defending the Senate filibuster law, which requires 60 senators to move to hold a vote on most legislation. This is a near impossible accomplishment in the age of hyperpartisanship, where intransigence against one’s enemies is rewarded as much as legislative accomplishment.

“The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship,” Manchin said in the article. “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”

I find it genuinely shocking that a man who has been in the United States Senate for more than 10 years could be so ignorant of the chamber’s history to argue that the filibuster has, at any point, but especially now, served as a tool of bipartisanship. If anything, it’s been the opposite – a tool for the minority party to derail the majority and grind the agenda they were elected to pursue to a halt.This is hardly ancient history either. In fact, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could be said to have revolutionized the filibuster during the presidency of Barack Obama, christening Congress for the modern age of perpetual obstruction. The number of filibusters exploded from 2007 to 2015, when Republicans were the minority in the Senate. The number of cloture motions –– which are the first step in attempting to end a filibuster –– jumped from 68 in the 2005-2006 session all the way to 252 by the end of the 2013-2014 session.  

In the process, McConnell managed to hamstring the Obama agenda, killing efforts to increase the transparency of campaign contributions, protect children brought to the US illegally from deportation and raise taxes on the wealthy, among many others. Elsewhere, legislative initiatives were dropped by Democrats entirely with the knowledge that they had no prayer of achieving 60 votes. This was the fate of bills capping carbon emissions, introducing background checks for gun purchases and, most infamously, adding a public insurance option to the Affordable Care Act.

Critically, McConnell’s freewheeling use of the filibuster was not punished but rewarded by the Republican base. Following the most audacious periods of obstruction, Republicans took back control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 –– both times in historic wave elections.  

The lesson was that it is as much, if not more, advantageous to be adversarial to the party in power.   Conservatives saw the Republican minority as the heroic opposition to the supervillainous Obama. Meanwhile, progressive voters were demoralized and demobilized as Obama’s transformative agenda was reduced to a jaundiced shell of what was promised.

Now in the infancy of the Biden era, it feels as if we’ve time-warped back to 2009. Democrats hold the presidency, House and Senate in the midst of a crisis and have a slate of potentially transformative legislation that appears destined to be filibustered into the Senate graveyard. The Democrats’ signature proposals are as good as dead if they are required to obtain 60 votes. While those like Manchin who argue in favor of the filibuster claim it is necessary to bring about partisan unity, many of the proposals it would block have strong majority support from the American public –– including a majority of Republicans. Sixty-seven percent support the For the People Act to make voting easier, end gerrymandering and make lobbying more transparent. Seventy-two percent support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Sixty-one percent support a $15 minimum wage. The filibuster makes all of these reforms impossible.

If Manchin really cared about unity and bipartisanship, he’d support the agenda items that majorities of Americans in both parties support. The real utility of the filibuster to Manchin –– who is as awash in corporate donations and conflicts of interest as any Republican senator –– is that it allows him to maintain the status quo on the behalf of the powerful while also hiding behind procedure to avoid the responsibility of working for his constituents. 

It allows him to preen as a reasonable, middle-of-the-road institutionalist and scold the people who actually want to enact the will of the majority as divisive partisans. In reality, he’s at odds with most voters.

But this is a problem that goes far beyond Manchin and his ilk. In an unbelievable demonstration of naivety (or pure cynicism), he suggested the filibuster ought to stay because Republicans were liable to have an “epiphany” and magically come to understand the beauty of bipartisanship, like when the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes on Christmas. He then signed an extremely popular stimulus package into law without a single Republican vote in the House or the Senate after filling it with half-measures in a hopeless effort to gain bipartisan support that will never come.

With a 50-50 split in Congress, Democrats need every vote they can muster, which has turned Manchin into a kingmaker who wields the power to kill their agenda on a whim. Ending the filibuster, which requires 50 votes, would require his blessing, which he has made clear he has no desire to give. But it is within the power of other Democrats to discipline Manchin by threatening to endorse a primary challenger in 2022 and attempting to limit his ability to fundraise. It is incumbent upon Democrats to use Manchin’s vulnerability as a Democrat in a solid red state to make him fall in line with the caucus.

A refusal to do this will reaffirm something very dark about the Democratic Party more broadly: that for all its talk about rebuilding the nation in a more equitable fashion following the pandemic, its members view procedural stumbling blocks like the filibuster as a shield from responsibility. The filibuster allows Democrats to have it both ways at the expense of the majority, pretending to hold progressive values but failing to deliver.