For the sake of democracy, kill off the Senate filibuster
Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, threaten to throw up roadblocks in front of the Biden economic rescue package and all other progressive legislation. To get around them, the arcane filibuster must be eliminated. | AP photos / PW illustration

The nation’s economic outlook is worsening, and new, more contagious COVID-19 variants worry public health officials. In response, the Democratic-led House and Senate are moving quickly to pass President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) through the process of budget reconciliation. This process requires a simple majority vote in the U.S. Senate.

Budget reconciliation is necessary to create an end-run around a Republican filibuster, which requires mustering an impossible 60 votes to overcome. The filibuster not only enables GOP obstruction, but it is also a “trap” hidden behind phony calls for “unity” and “compromise.”

Republican senators’ refusal to convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection and the party’s embrace of white supremacy, QAnon supporters, and its violent fascist wing—combined with the filibuster—make compromise impossible.

The Republican Party reacted to its 2020 election loss by accelerating its fascist trajectory. It is doubling down to pass voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering in the states to cement long-term minority rule. The GOP poses an enormous and continuing threat, not just to the historic 2020 election victory, but to democracy itself.

Defending and consolidating this victory requires the passage of the ambitious Biden agenda, beginning with the ARP, and for green energy jobs, worker’s rights, racial and climate justice, and electoral and voting rights reforms to strengthen democracy. It requires restoring people’s confidence in the government’s ability to materially impact people’s lives.

The filibuster’s long history is rooted in post-Reconstruction Jim Crow segregation and the legacy of the slavocracy. White supremacists historically used the filibuster to block Civil Rights and voting rights legislation. But under today’s GOP, the filibuster is employed continuously to thwart the majority’s will. It has rendered the Senate an unworkable governmental body.

The 2020 elections exposed the fragility of democracy after years of assault by the extreme right. It took a historic voter upsurge, organized defense of democratic institutions, and a battle against massive disinformation from a diverse range of institutions, organizations, and movements to win. Defending and expanding democracy is a never-ending struggle.

Passage of Biden’s non-budget-related agenda won’t happen without eliminating or reforming the Senate filibuster. Arriving at this moment was inevitable, and eliminating the filibuster is now the most pressing democratic challenge facing the mass democratic people’s movements.

Bitter lessons learned

Democrats and the broad democratic people’s coalition in and allied with it drew hard lessons from GOP obstruction during the Obama administration. Despite a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority, Republicans countered President Obama’s efforts to forge “bi-partisan” compromises with unrelenting obstruction. The result was insufficient economic relief to address the Great Recession, hampering the whole country’s recovery. And when the 60-vote Democratic majority disappeared, the GOP delayed passage of the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans became the party of “no.”

Simultaneously, the GOP, its billionaire backers, and the extreme right astroturfed the Tea Party Patriots into existence, inciting a political and racist backlash. According to Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief-of-staff to Sen. Harry Reid and author of Kill Switch, a filibuster history, then-Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell understood the GOP could obstruct Obama from getting anything done and that the public would blame Obama and Democrats for the resulting gridlock.

And that’s precisely what happened. Democrats paid a bitter price in the 2010 elections, losing the House majority and effectively ending hopes for a “transformative” Obama presidency.

Since then, the Republican Party has accelerated its trajectory toward becoming a fascist party with a violent armed wing. It is mired in corruption and politically bankrupt. Its only path to regain power is to sabotage the Biden administration’s ability to govern—despite immense social, public health, racial, and climate emergencies—and use underhanded, illegal, and racist methods to restrict voting. But no one is fooled this time.

Building movements

The $1.9 trillion ARP is very popular among voters, including the $1,400 stimulus checks, extended supplemental unemployment benefits, aid to cities and states, and the $15-an-hour minimum wage. Tens of millions of people, including millions who voted for Trump, are desperate to pay bills and put food on the table. They’re threatened with eviction and foreclosure. The immediate relief of the ARP is exactly what they need—now.

Most of the Biden and Democratic Congressional agenda is not achievable through executive order, budget reconciliation, or simple Senate majorities, though. Things like a jobs and green infrastructure act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, criminal justice reform, immigration reform with a path to citizenship, the Pro-Act removing obstacles to union organizing, and student debt relief require serious movement in Congress to win. All these measures have broad support among the people, but Republican senators, again, stand in the way.

The GOP risks defeat in 2022 if it continues its embrace of fascism, white supremacy, insurrection, and opposition to popular Biden policies. To win, they are combining legislative obstruction with the passage of state voter suppression laws and extreme gerrymandering of congressional districts favorable to the GOP under the guise of combatting “voter fraud.”

“There are at least 165 proposals under consideration in 33 states so far this year to restrict future voting access by limiting mail-in ballots, implementing new voter I.D. requirements, and slashing registration options,” reports Axios.

The laws aim to prevent massive turnout of key Democratic constituencies, particularly African American, Mexican American, Indigenous, and young people, to ensure permanent GOP House and Senate majorities. As a minority party of white supremacy, Republicans know they can never win the popular vote for the presidency and stable Congressional majorities without dismantling democracy.

The only way to block the GOP scheme is to pass voting and electoral reforms that ensure majority rule. These reforms include the “For the People Act” and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which restores provisions of the original 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Undoing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that let billions in dark money flood our elections and passing D.C. statehood (and statehood for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico if the people of those territories determine that path) would also help him in the GOP’s anti-democratic efforts.

Here again, passage of all these is contingent on either reforming or eliminating the Senate filibuster rule to allow simple majority votes. And this must occur before the 2022 elections, or the Biden administration will be sabotaged if the GOP wins either Congressional chamber.

Eliminating or reforming the filibuster rule requires the vote of every Democratic senator and Vice President Kamala Harris. Currently, at least two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have reiterated their support for the filibuster. Grassroots pressure is essential to sway them to change their minds.

Manchin and Sinema are undoubtedly aware of the impact these policies will have on voters in their states. They will not want to shoulder the blame for Biden and Democrats’ inability to deliver and its consequences in the 2022 and 2024 elections.

Reform of the filibuster is not new. The Senate previously adopted exceptions, including for confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court and federal judicial nominees and the budget reconciliation procedure. Further reform is possible if popular support for Biden’s agenda and shifting public opinion can be harnessed. Voters are not as concerned about the process by which policies get adopted as much as they are about getting results.

People voted for change in November 2020. They want to see an end to the pandemic and the passage of a real economic survival package. Killing off the Senate filibuster is a necessity now.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.