The newly-elected Democratic majority in the Senate is currently debating whether to keep or nix the filibuster. There are strong policy, political, and Constitutional arguments for eliminating the filibuster – and there is little reason to preserve it.
The policy case for killing the filibuster
Small states are already overrepresented in the United States Senate and the Electoral College. When you add a supermajority requirement to pass major legislation – a requirement that does not exist in the Constitution (more on that later) – you only give small states even more power. It is a de facto veto power for small-state senators like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. It’s also a veto for insurrectionists like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.
As the insurrection demonstrates clearly, safeguarding our elections and ensuring voting rights must be a top priority of President Biden and Congress. It is simply unacceptable to let Mitch McConnell veto any progress on some of the biggest issues of our time – be it a ban on political gerrymandering ahead of redistricting, stricter anti-corruption and nepotism laws, new disclosure requirements for donors and super PACs, universal voter registration, and so many more badly-needed reforms.
Much of President Biden’s agenda hinges on eliminating the filibuster. It is true that Democrats can bypass the filibuster with an arcane process known as budget reconciliation – a process that only requires a majority vote in the Senate – but it is only limited to budget-related priorities. Election reform and strengthening ethics laws, for instance, likely does not pass muster under reconciliation.
In addition, Republicans still have a majority on several Senate committees even though they are now in the minority. New members like Mark Kelly, Raphael Warnock, and Jon Ossoff have yet to even receive their committee assignments. McConnell is seeking to tie the hands of the new Democratic majority.
Will the Democratic majority willingly accept this arrangement? And if they do, will Democratic voters forget come 2022 and 2024? I think not.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer needs to use every tool at his disposal to ensure that Democrats can govern. That means killing the filibuster and changing the Senate’s rules to limit GOP obstruction. The American people expect results, not excuses.
From a policy perspective, the filibuster is absolutely noxious. During the Obama years, the filibuster effectively killed the DREAM Act, common-sense gun control, cap-and-trade climate change legislation, and a myriad of other progressive priorities. Meanwhile, filibusters did not stop the Bush or Trump tax cuts, which were passed through a majority vote using budget reconciliation.
Likewise, McConnell used reconciliation in his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”). The effort only failed because Senate Republicans lacked even a simple majority in support of repeal. (Senator McCain infamously gave the bill a thumbs down on the Senate floor.)
From a public policy point of view, it’s nearly impossible these days to get a 60-vote consensus on basic governance, let alone controversial issues. The minority party can use this power – which is not found in the Constitution – to stifle any semblance of progress. Indeed, a minority of senators from states already overrepresented in the Senate can grind the lawmaking process to a complete halt. This is not the way to govern a country.
The political case for killing the filibuster
Nearly eight years ago, I penned a piece titled “It’s Time to Kill the Filibuster.”
The context was different then, but the points remain the same today. To briefly recap, Senate Republicans blocked President Obama’s judicial nominees, including three nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals – which is regarded as the second-most powerful court in the land. Not only did Republicans weaponize the filibuster to stymie popular legislation, but they also denied President Obama’s judicial appointments an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
Democrats wisely responded with the nixing of the filibuster for cabinet-level and judicial nominees. They left an exception in place for the Supreme Court. But they acted far too slowly and ultimately ceded control of the chamber after the 2014 midterm elections. Two years later, Trump won the Electoral College with narrow wins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – but failing to capture the national popular vote.
Wielding their newfound power and taking full advantage of the Obama-era vacancies that they engineered – including a SCOTUS seat after refusing to even hold hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland – the GOP rammed its judicial nominees through the Senate. As soon as the filibuster got in their way, they killed it for Supreme Court nominees. Unlike Democrats, they did not hesitate.
They acted decisively after the death of Justice Ginsburg as well, voting on her replacement a mere week before the election – four years after saying that voters should decide a vacant Supreme Court seat in an election year.
None of President Trump’s nominees – Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett – would be on the court today if not for Mitch McConnell’s use of the so-called “nuclear option” to kill the filibuster. What would have been a 5-4 liberal majority with Garland on the Court became a 6-3 conservative majority thanks to Republicans’ obstruction tactics and their swift reversal on the filibuster when it became politically expedient.
The lesson that Democrats should learn from this is that they should use their power when they have it to advance the public good – within the constraints of the Constitution. There is no constitutional right to the filibuster. In fact, I would argue that the filibuster itself is unconstitutional.
The Constitutional case for killing the filibuster
The Constitution requires the president to nominate judges and the Senate to offer its “advise and consent.” (The same is also true for Cabinet appointments, ambassadorship, etc.) That means debating and voting on nominations.
Confirmation requires only a majority threshold, something that the filibuster expressly denies. The Constitution does not grant the power to block lawfully-nominated judges for seats on the federal bench with a minority of votes. Republicans have essentially short-circuited the Constitution to suit their political goals.
The country was founded on the principle of majority rule. Indeed, the Vice President’s sole role – other than acting as the successor to the president in the case of death, resignation, or removal – is to cast a tie-breaking vote in an evenly divided Senate. The Founders expected the Senate to be a majority body and nothing else – except in specific circumstances, as outlined in the Constitution. Only a few exceptions require more than a majority: ratifying treaties, Constitutional amendments, and convicting an impeached president or members of the Cabinet.
I am not a constitutional scholar, but I can read the plain text of the Constitution and see that the Founders’ obvious intent was for the Senate to be a body where the majority carried the day – with few exceptions. So why keep this relic that makes an undemocratic body even less democratic?
The choice is clear. The filibuster must be eliminated.