Abolishing the filibuster would transform US politics

By Charlotte Robinson


THE Senate is said to be the saucer that cools the hot cup of the House of Representatives – but the existence of the filibuster doesn’t so much help to cool proceedings as it does freeze them.

The filibuster requires 60 Senators to end debate and move to vote on a piece of legislation, and was designed to promote consensus and prevent a tyranny of the majority. 

In practice, however,  it acts more like a stranglehold on the functioning of government.

Abolishing the Senate’s cloture rule would usher in a productive new era for Congress, a stark contrast to the somewhat sedate pace at which it normally moves.

Biden’s infrastructure bill, healthcare reform, universal background checks on guns, and climate change legislation could all be passed with relative ease, but some argue that American democracy itself is first on the agenda.

“The most important element here would be the ability for Democrats to pass legislation that would remedy some major problems in our democracy,” Caroline Fredrickson, author and Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Redaction Politics.

“If they can fix the filibuster and then ensure that Americans can participate fairly in our democracy, then we can know that the other policies that are good can get done.

“First we need to make sure that the system works and then you address the most significant problems that we face.”

Doing away with the filibuster would not only transform US politics from a policy standpoint, but from a party political one too. Whilst the filibuster currently benefits the Republicans in that it gives voice to the minority party, it also favours the GOP unilaterally.

“It’s also a philosophical issue” Fredrickson added.

“The Republican party is the party of ‘No’; they are a party that is conservative and libertarian.”

The mechanism thwarts change in that it requires more than a simple majority to implement it, and given that Republicans are rarely in the mood for upending the status quo, they appear incentivised to defend it.

There is an argument, of course, for keeping the filibuster in place. It encourages bipartisanship and debate, two things not commonly found in the current polarized landscape of US politics, and that the current President would certainly like to see more of. However, there is scant evidence that the filibuster facilitates either.

In addition, Bipartisanship doesn’t rank highly in the list of priorities for the majority of the population – wage slips and food prices do – and for these Americans, what they really care about is their politicians getting on and passing legislation that will impact their everyday lives.

Besides, the filibuster has blocked legislation that is widely popular with the American people.

Universal background checks on guns have overwhelming support, and yet gun-industry backed Republicans show no appetite for them.

In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, Republicans filibustered gun control legislation sponsored by Joe Manchin (D) and Pat Toomey (R), causing it to fall 6 votes short. Blocking a bill which has consensus amongst Americans in favour of consensus amongst Congressmen seems self-defeating to say the least.

Consensus would still need to be sought owing to the current 50/50 split in the Senate, moderates such as Manchin would still need to be persuaded to pass any legislation, meaning abolishing the filibuster wouldn’t be an immediate slam dunk for the Dems.

So how likely is it that the filibuster will be abolished?

Republicans criticized the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, despite significant support from both the wider population and Republican voters alone, and Fredrickson believes that abolishing the filibuster all relies on how Republicans respond to future legislation.

She said: “I think a change in the filibuster is all really going to depend on how far the republicans push it. If they say that they’re not going to allow President Biden to get anything done, I think perhaps we’ll even see those so called moderate Democratic senators agree that the filibuster has got to go.”

The idea that ending the filibuster depends on the behaviour of Republicans and moderate Democrats will hardly be music to the ears of progressives. But Biden was propelled to the Oval Office on the message of unity, and it’s not an idea he’ll give up on soon.


Featured Image: Pixabay

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