Fight for the Filibuster

By Alexander Rowley

Given the seemingly ever-widening gap between America’s two political parties, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Senate has failed to pull itself out of its current legislative funk. As Democrats struggle to make consistent use of their control of the Senate in the face of largely unified Republican opposition to their agenda, calls to abolish the filibuster, and thereby lower the minimum requirement for most bills to pass to 51 votes, have grown louder on the American Left. Such a move, however, would likely only worsen the dysfunction and divisiveness which already plague Congress and the country as a whole.

This attempt to ease the passage of laws through Congress’ upper chamber continues the pattern set in recent years of each party tossing out inconvenient procedure while blaming the unwillingness of the other to compromise. Democrats did this in 2013 to allow easier confirmation of cabinet nominees and federal judges. Republicans followed suit in 2017 to extend that rule to Supreme Court nominees. Rather than restoring trust in democracy and encouraging bipartisanship, Democrats soon regretted their initial change as Republicans rammed Donald Trump’s cabinet through the Senate, while bitter nomination fights over Merrick Garland, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett have hardly convinced anyone that these changes were for the good of democracy. It seems likely that Republicans regretted their changes as President Biden announced his first Supreme Court nominee. Despite the arguments of both to the contrary, neither party can claim the moral high ground here: both have changed the rules, both have benefited, and both have been burned by changes they implemented. Abolition of the filibuster may serve Democrats’ interests now, but there is no guarantee that a new voting rights bill will not be followed by voting restrictions under the next Republican administration. Beyond these specifics, though, it simply is not sustainable to have two parties that refuse to agree on a set of rules and instead pick and choose every time power shifts. Change in the name of convenience is simply not a good enough argument to justify the constant flux that has done nothing but harm the U.S. political system. 

Even more broadly, passing bills, especially in the Senate, was never meant to be convenient. The Senate was designed to be slow, encourage compromise where possible, and maximize the strength of the political minority. These are all good things. Wild swings in policy and ideology create massive instability, a fact that has become clear over the past six years. Why exactly would we want to make it easier for such swings to happen?

Many might respond that bipartisan compromise is dead, and as such that the only way to govern is to abolish the filibuster. Such claims seem to willfully ignore reality. Despite the rancor of Senate Republicans aiming to torpedo the Democratic agenda, one of this term’s few legislative accomplishments was a bipartisan infrastructure bill that easily cleared the filibuster’s 60 vote threshold. As Democrats fail to push through reconciliation bills designed to circumvent the filibuster, it seems possible that unpackaged, standalone measures addressing policies from prescription drug costs to election procedure would be able to pass the Senate. There has been little effort to pass such legislation.

Compromise, then, is still possible, while the negative impact brought on by constant rule changes in the political sphere is clear. Legislating is not meant to be easy. It is time for U.S. Senators to start working together, rather than blaming the rules, and each other, for their failures.

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