In last week’s third Democratic primary debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren suggested that the reason America doesn’t have universal background checks or a ban on assault weapons is because of the Senate filibuster. Warren has been arguing since April that the time-honored Senate mechanism should be disregarded in order to pass sweeping reforms like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
She is not alone in this assertion. Harry Reid, the former Senate Majority Leader published an op-ed in the New York Times advocating for the Senate rule to fade into oblivion. Reid, Warren and other liberals often criticize Republican Senator Mitch McConnell’s efficacy in wielding the filibuster to block progressive legislation as minority leader during Barack Obama’s presidency.
The reality is that the minority party has made the filibuster a regular threat amidst growing partisanship regardless of which party is in power.
The majority party has also frequently tried to limit the minority’s filibuster abilities. In 2013, the Democratic majority, under the leadership of Reid, first rolled back the filibuster on lower court and executive nominations, with the exception of the Supreme Court. The Republicans then removed that exception in 2017 to move forward with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Both parties have since hinted at abolishing or threatened to abolish the filibuster for all legislation. But that would remove the primary leverage tool for the minority party against legislation it vehemently opposes and would throw away any semblance of bipartisanship.
Progressives like Warren like to argue that eliminating the filibuster is practically essential to making bold proposals a reality. To pass a big, bold package, they believe that it needs to be done with 51 votes rather than 60. They have essentially given up on making their proposals palatable to conservatives.
Democrats winning the Senate in 2020 is somewhat of a long shot,l but they should be strategic about whether to eliminate the filibuster if they gain the majority. If all that’s needed to pass legislation is 51 votes for the sake of Democrats’ progressive agenda, they have to remember that the same is true for when their opposition is in power. If the Republicans had a 51-vote threshold today, they would have been able to pass a number of reforms on healthcare and labor opposed by Democrats.
In an ideal political climate, the filibuster would be used to spur compromise as intended but most often it is a means for the minority to block the majority. The majority, then, should be wary to take the mechanism away if it means they no longer have it in their arsenal upon falling once again to minority status. If Democrats decided to do away with the filibuster upon gaining a Senate majority, they would essentially be shooting themselves in the foot for the future.
As to the point of bold proposals not being able to reach the 60-vote threshold that a filibuster requires, the progressive majority should better court their opposition to meet that end. Compromise is possible even in the current climate and pragmatists might be better equipped to lead the charge over progressives.
The filibuster should be here to stay, even amidst today’s gridlock. Removing it would be a strategic blunder for either party and keeping it would be a necessary check against the tyranny of the (simple) majority. Rather than getting rid of it, Senators should dedicate their time and efforts to restoring the filibuster to its original purpose: compromise and bipartisanship.