Political observers seem to be on tenterhooks watching the drama around the senate filibuster unfold.
Will the Democrats exercise the “nuclear option” and jettison the filibuster rule altogether?
Will they institute reforms, or carve outs, to enable the Senate Democrats to pass certain kinds of legislation, such as the For the People Act designed to counteract the flood of voter suppression legislation around nation, with only 51 votes, a simple majority?
Senators Joe Manchin (D-West Vriginia) and Krysten Sinema (D-Arizona) hold democracy and the Democrats hostage with their dithering over the need for compromise with a Republican party that has shown no hint of a willingness to compromise with Democrats and, as we saw during Barack Obama’s presidency, has historically practiced an overt strategy of obstruction.
That no Republican voted for the American Rescue Plan Act in either the House or Senate might, you would think, give hold-outs like Manchin and Synema some idea that Republicans have no interest in either democracy or representing their constituents, who overwhelmingly supported the relief bill.
Oh, but wait, Manchin and Synema seem to be budging slightly and are perhaps now amenable to some reform of the democracy-prevention tactic of the filibuster.
Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell threatened a “scorched-earth Senate” if the filibuster is eliminated, indicating he would do his best to shut down any progress: “The Senate would be more like a 100-car pileup, nothing moving.”
If you think for two seconds about this desperate threat, you have to laugh.
It was precisely the filibuster that has enabled McConnell in the past to obstruct, and when he was Senate Majority Leader he refused to let hundreds of pieces of legislation passed by the Democratic-led House even come up for a vote.
What can McConnell do that he hasn’t already done?
During Obama’s presidency, we must recall, he simply refused to allow Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination proceed through the Senate approval process, claiming since the nomination occurred during the last year of Obama’s presidency, it should wait until after the next presidential election so the people can decide. Then, of course, in the final months of Trump’s damaging presidency, McConnell pushed through the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court—with a simple majority.
Let’s stress this last point. McConnell only needed a simple majority to approve Barrett because he was perfectly happy to eliminate the filibuster rule in 2017 when it came to confirming Supreme Court Justices. That was one of those “carve outs.”
Let’s think about that. When it comes to appointing the nine people, our Supreme Court Justices, who exert an incredible amount of decision-making power the lives of Americans, it’s ok to have a simple majority hold sway in selecting this elite minority to make some of the most crucial and far-reaching decisions about our lives.
But we can’t have 51 representatives the people we actually elect make momentous decisions in their governing roles?
This situation is truly bizarre and defies logic, revealing the fundamental truth of the filibuster: it is simply yet another mechanism to enable minority rule and prevent democracy from coming to full maturity in America.
That the proposal of carving out an exception for the current bill to protect voting rights has been termed the “democracy exception” says enough, doesn’t it? It somehow suggests we will make an exception to the typically anti-democratic rules to allow for the practice of democracy!
Democracy should, of course, be the rule in a democracy, not the exception. Am I right?
The filibuster is really just another form of gerrymandering, which is what makes the controversy over the filibuster such a joke.
Gerrymandering and the filibuster have long enabled Republicans to govern as a tyranny of the minority.
After the 2018 mid-terms, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow explained just how severely Republican districting efforts—or gerrymandering—skewed the electoral map in favor of a Republican minority.
In that mid-term in Wisconsin, 53 percent of the votes for positions in the state legislature went for Democratic candidates, with Republican candidates receiving 45 percent of the votes. Yet—check this out—Republicans were elected into 64 percent of the seats!
Maddow asked and answered her own question: “Why is that? Because they tilted the playing field.”
In that same report, she identified a similar dynamic in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, all key swing states playing major factors in national elections.
The filibuster, like gerrymandering, is just one more tool the Republicans use to claim the power of the majority when they represent a minority of the electorate. Even worse, as we saw with the American Rescue Plan Act, they don’t even represent their minority.
Because of the electoral college, Donald Trump was able to capture the presidency while losing the popular vote, garnering a whopping three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.
The rules of our electoral college subjected us to minority Republican rule.
Gerrymandering, as Maddow demonstrated, subjected Americans in several states to minority Republican rule in their state legislatures.
The filibuster does the same in the U.S. Senate.
And there’s no reason, constitutional or otherwise, for the filibuster to exist.
As Democratic Senator Brian Schatz noted in a tweet: “The filibuster was never in the constitution, originated mostly by accident, and has historically been used to block civil rights. It’s time to trash the Jim Crow filibuster.”
In short, the filibuster has been a senate tool typically deployed to disrupt democracy, rather than enable it.
As Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America, recently wrote, “Republicans are increasingly open about the cold logic of what they’re attempting: The harder it is for Democratic votes to count, the more likely Republicans are to win.”
In short, the filibuster is just another form of voter suppression for Republicans, making the votes of Senate Democrats not count.
Ironically, the potential elimination of the filibuster has become a matter of controversy and media scrutiny.
It would make more sense, in a nation with a putative commitment to democracy, that the existence of the filibuster itself would be a matter of outrage and controversy.
But just as Trump always turned reality on its head, insisting up was down and black was white, so the filibuster is another way Republicans turn reality and democracy and their heads to install a tyranny of the minority.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.