Let’s End the Filibuster Once and For All

A response to Sen. Romney

By:  Jon Sinton, CEO, LetMajorityRule.org

Say whatever you will about Sen. Mitt Romney – and people on both sides of the political aisle seem to say plenty about him – he can always be counted upon for truly civil and respectful debate.

So, even on those issues over which we disagree profoundly with the Senator from Utah, we are compelled to do so with the utmost respect.  It is in that spirit that we offer the following point-by-point rebuttal to his recent Washington Post guest opinion column defending the Senate filibuster.

The United States Senate is one of our vital democratic institutions. Since shortly after our nation’s founding, a single senator has been permitted to speak indefinitely, delaying and possibly impairing legislation favored by the majority, even if that senator were in the minority. When rules were eventually developed to cut off debate, the Senate required that decision to be made by a supermajority of senators, first 67 and now 60.

The power given to the minority and the resulting requirement for political consensus are among the Senate’s defining features.

We note, hopefully without gratuitous irony, that Sen. Romney does not posit the filibuster is among the Senate’s best defining features…

Note that in our federal government, empowerment of the minority is established in just one institution: the Senate. The majority decides in the House; the majority decides in the Supreme Court; and the president is a majority of one. Only in the Senate does the minority restrain the power of the majority.

“…. in our federal government…”  But not in our Constitution.  

That a minority should be afforded such political power is a critical element of the institution.

Again, Sen. Romney cites the “institution”…. But not our Constitution.

In fact, a persistent myth is that the filibuster was somehow within the Founders’ intent.  Quite the opposite, actually.  Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, writing in the Federalist Papers, warnedus of the dangers of a filibuster; Thomas Jefferson, writing in his Manual of Parliamentary Practice, insisted “The voice of the majority decides.” 

For a law to pass in the Senate, it must appeal to senators in both parties. This virtually ensures that a bill did not originate from the extreme wing of either party and will thus best represent the interests of a broad swath of Americans. The Senate’s minority empowerment has meant that our nation’s policies inevitably tack toward the center. As then-Sen. Joe Biden said in 2005: “At its core, the filibuster is not about stopping a nominee or a bill, it’s all about compromise and moderation.”

How are the interests served of “a broad swath of Americans” when it no longer requires anything more than a Post-It note to stop debate?

Consider how different the Senate would be without the filibuster. Whenever one party replaced the other as the majority, tax and spending priorities, safety net programs, national security policy and cultural interests would careen from one extreme to the other, creating uncertainty and unpredictability for families, employers and our partners around the world.

A very strong argument can be made that eliminating the filibuster would actually enable otherwise bottlenecked legislation that would appeal to both parties’ constituents.  If a senator serving in the minority sees the train about to leave the station, they are more likely to climb on board to ensure their participation and that their voice is reflected.  As it stands, all too many senators from very red or very blue states can comfortably, even smugly, obstruct without consequence.  

The need to marshal 60 votes to end a filibuster requires compromise and middle ground. It not only empowers the minority but also has helped to keep us centered, fostering the stability and predictability essential to investment in people, in capital and in the future.

Would that this were true, Senator.  But you know as well as we do that — even if it ever did — it certainly no longer works this way.  Even the most extreme member of either party can stymie activity.  Too few centrists in either party dare challenge these showboating characters lest they risk being primaried, possibly even denied committee assignments.

Abandoning the principle of minority empowerment would fundamentally change the distinct and defining role of the U.S. Senate.

Today’s Democrats, now with the barest of majorities in a 50-50 Senate, conveniently ignore their own impassioned defense of the filibuster when they were in the minority. Then, they vigorously spoke of its vital role; 30 Senate Democrats signed a letter in 2017 imploring Senate leaders to “preserve existing rules, practices, and traditions as they pertain to the right of Members to engage in extended debate on legislation.” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), now the majority leader, had previously described attempts to do away with the filibuster as a “temper tantrum” and stressed in 2017 that “no senator would like to see that happen.”

On this we agree, Senator.  The filibuster is a tool consistently abused by whatever party happens to be in the minority.  Eliminating it once and for all forces accountability and transparency – andactivity.

Let us also be clear that those who claim the filibuster is racist know better. For former president Barack Obama to make this absurd charge after he himself vigorously defended the filibuster just a few years ago is both jarring and deeply disappointing. I don’t recall a single claim from Democrats that employing the filibuster was racist when they were in the minority.

Again, we agree, Senator.  It is counterproductive to argue that the filibuster today is a racist tool.  But it does in fact have its very basis in the Jim Crow South and efforts to preserve institutions (that word again…) which our country has spent the past century trying to evolve beyond.

The Democrats’ latest justification for eliminating the filibuster is Republicans’ unwillingness to pass partisan election-reform legislation. Democrats have filed these bills numerous times over numerous years, almost always without seeking Republican involvement in drafting them. Anytime legislation is crafted and sponsored exclusively by one party, it is obviously an unserious partisan effort aimed at messaging and energizing that party’s base. Any serious legislative effort is negotiated and sponsored by both parties.

Engage with the Dems, Senator.  Oh, right… you – or, more precisely, your more extreme GOP colleagues — don’t have to.  Everyone can just sit back and make speeches

There was a time, after all, when voting-rights legislation was embraced with near unanimity in the Senate — before the highly partisan politics of personal destruction. 

Are the current voting reform bills so dissimilar to those past voting rights bills?  We don’t know…. Because the filibuster enables a few senators to block mere debate about them. 

Finally, consider a more immediate implication of eliminating the filibuster. There is a reasonable chance that Republicans could win both houses of Congress in the next election cycle and, further, that Donald Trump could be elected president once again in 2024. Have Democrats thought through what it would mean for them for Trump to be entirely unrestrained, with the Democratic minority having no power whatsoever? If Democrats eliminate the filibuster now, they — and the country — may soon regret it very much.

A clever piece of debating jiu-jitsu, Senator.  But would you presume a majority-GOP Senate would present to a re-elected Pres. Trump an irresponsible and harmful piece of legislation?   If the people elect a majority-Republican Senate, then the greater likelihood is that the Senate majority would present to a Pres. Trump a piece of legislation that actually reflects the will of the majority of voters … and Trump might even sign it.  Analogies to blind squirrels and broken clocks come to mind….

But let’s look at the recent successful passage of a validly popular piece of legislation: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF). 

Yes, the legislation passed even with the filibuster still in place.  But it was at arguably a crisis point for a country faced with an undeniably urgent need to restore and advance antiquated, in many cases crumbling, systems of roads, bridges, tunnels, rails and airports that were the laughingstock of the developed world.   

Americans were fed up.  They wanted BIF.   According to a summer 2021 poll reported in Axios, 71% of likely voters, including a majority of likely Republican voters, supported it while it was under debate.

Your colleague, Sen. McConnell – never shy about voicing his intention of making Democratic presidents one-term presidents – understood this, and how long-overdue infrastructure spending could benefit Kentucky.

And yet BIF still faced opposition from a majority of your fellow GOP senators!  

Were they reflecting the will of the small minority of voters who – for whatever reason – opposed BIF?  Certainly. 

But just think what we’d be faced with were you not joined in your own BIF vote by at least nine other sensible Republican senators?   A bill boasting support of nearly three in four Americans would be blocked.  And, again, critical infrastructure repair would be put on hold indefinitely.

Removing the filibuster may be the surest way of ridding our system of that kind of obstructionist nonsense once and for all

Jon Sinton is CEO of Let Majority Rule (Let MajorityRule.org), a project of Marvin Lucas SuperPAC

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