July 22, 2020

Senate Filibuster

Last week, the New York Times reported that Joe Biden stated he would “have to take a look” at the filibuster if elected. New York Times

See past issues

From the Left

The left supports eliminating the filibuster, arguing that it will be necessary to enact progressive policies.

“If a Republican minority blocks civil-rights legislation again in 2021, ‘the pressure to get rid of the filibuster would be unbearable, and [Democrats] would have to get rid of it,’ predicts Adam Jentleson, a former deputy chief of staff to Reid and the author of an upcoming book about the Senate, Kill Switch. Starting next year, Democrats ‘simply could not explain’ to their coalition and the broader public alike that they would fail ‘to pass a new civil-rights agenda in deference to the procedural tool that was invented by segregationists to uphold Jim Crow and white supremacy. That is an unsustainable argument for Democrats to make.’”
Ronald Brownstein, The Atlantic

“[Democrats would] need to choose one of three paths. First, they could maintain the filibuster, giving Republicans the ability to block all significant legislation, while also retreating from the executive overreach that has defined the Trump years. This would result in a weak presidency and none of the progressive change Democrats long for. Second, they could maintain the filibuster, giving Republicans the ability to block all meaningful legislation, but continue the Trumpian executive overreach, allowing Biden to pursue progressive goals through regulation and executive orders…

“Third, they could abolish the filibuster, and use House and Senate majorities to pass as much progressive legislation as they can agree on. This would toss out a senatorial tradition but would strengthen Congress as a whole, and make it a more equal partner to the presidency… If you're Biden or Schumer, it's obvious which of these three choices will accomplish the most and undermine our political system least. If they get the chance, Senate Democrats should abolish the filibuster.”
David Plotz, Business Insider

“[The filibuster is an] accident of history. It came about only because when the Senate reorganized its rules in 1806, it accidentally deleted the clause allowing for debate to be ended by majority vote. It didn't even occur to anyone to try to halt legislation by endlessly talking for several more decades. For over a century afterwards, filibusters were primarily used by racists to stop civil rights legislation. Only during the Obama years did they become routine, with Republicans trying them on almost every piece of legislation (and now Democrats doing the same to Trump)… Virtually every other legislative body in the world works by majority vote, and the Senate would be fine doing so as well.”
Ryan Cooper, The Week

“Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told The Hill that scrapping the filibuster ‘would be a huge mistake.’ After all, ‘if we didn’t have the 60-vote rule today, the ACA would be gone.’… [but] It is not, in fact, true that the filibuster saved the Affordable Care Act. To the contrary, McConnell failed to get so much as 50 votes for a watered-down version of Obamacare repeal that would have left its Medicaid expansion intact…

“If Mitch McConnell believed that abolishing the filibuster was in the long-term best interest of his party and its donor class, ethical scruples would not have prevented him from scrapping it. The fact that the legislative filibuster remains in place — contrary to Donald Trump’s wishes — reflects the GOP’s awareness that the supermajority requirement favors conservatism.”
Eric Levitz, New York Magazine

Some, however, note that “Any Democrat tempted to destroy the legislative filibuster, should consider the cost of giving a future GOP majority the power to realize a right-wing agenda and control the federal budget without any input from the minority… Lasting major legislation like Social Security, Medicare, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Medicare prescription drugs, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and many others were accomplished with large Congressional majorities. This has contributed to the staying power of these public policies. Eliminating the filibuster would take us in precisely the wrong direction.”
Richard A. Arenberg, The Hill

From the Right

The right supports keeping the filibuster, arguing that it promotes consensus and blocks overly partisan policies.

The right supports keeping the filibuster, arguing that it promotes consensus and blocks overly partisan policies.

“The framers faced the same problem that has faced many republics in the past: balancing the need for widespread democratic access to political power, which helps to confer legitimacy, with the need for more narrow administration that frustrates and defeats the will of the people when the people have gone mad, as they do from time to time. What they came up with was a mix of democratic and anti-democratic institutions: in the legislative branch, a popularly elected House that serves as the accelerator and an appointed, quasi-aristocratic Senate that serves as the brakes…

“Democrats looking to eliminate the filibuster in 2021 should keep in mind that in January 2017 the elected branches of the federal government were under unified Republican control led by Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump, three representatives of the will of the people to whom Democrats very much wanted to say ‘No.’”
Kevin D. Williamson, National Review

“Supermajority rules are purposefully in place all throughout the U.S. government. They exist in the procedures to amend the constitution, overriding vetoes, and convicting presidents in an impeachment trial… The federal government, while slow and at times inefficient, is working as intended. Jefferson, fearing the possibility of a fast-paced federal government, penned a letter to James Madison saying ‘I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.’…

“The opposition party being able to yell ‘stop’ at potentially harmful legislation is a critical part of the protection of minority rights. The filibuster protects the minority party and provides a much-needed check on government. It allows for our system of governance to be steadied, tending more towards federalism, allowing for compromise within the Capitol, and making discussion before passing critical legislation necessary… The shift in tone by Minority Leader [Chuck] Schumer is striking, who had previously warned Republicans of invoking the ‘nuclear option’ on Supreme Court nominations, previously stating: ‘Mr. President, the 60-vote bar in the Senate is the guardrail of our democracy.’”
Alberto Bufalino, The American Conservative

“Democrats removed the filibuster for judicial nominees (except the Supreme Court) in 2013, because they were frustrated by Republican Senate opposition to Barack Obama’s appointees to the bench. That has come back to bite them as it opened the door for President Trump and Senate Republicans to streamline confirmation of judicial nominees—and to kill the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

“Americans are generally not in favor of pure party-line votes. A pure partisan vote was a criticism of the vote to impeach President Trump and legislation passed during the first two years of Obama’s presidency. Most Americans are also not comfortable with sweeping change. Incremental and consensus-based change is how our government has operated… If the filibuster is taken away, the Senate will become less deliberative. It will be a rubber stamp for the president’s agenda when they are from the same party. It will become a barricade when they are from opposite parties.”
Stacey Lennox, PJ Media

The Hoover Institute’s John Cochrane writes, “Why are our politics so polarized? One answer is that elections are more and more winner take all. The more it is winner take all, the more incentive there is for scorched-earth tactics to win, or to keep from losing… The first function of a democracy is a peaceful transition of power. That requires losers to accept their fate, acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcome, regroup and try again. And they have to be able to do that.  We are not a pure democracy. We are set up as a republic, with elaborate protections for electoral minorities. The point is to keep those electoral minorities from rebelling. Union first, ‘progress’ second.”
John Cochrane, The Grumpy Economist

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