Newsweek (Op-Ed): It’s Time to Fix—Or Nix—The Senate Filibuster
Newsweek (Op-Ed): It's Time to Fix—Or Nix—The Senate Filibuster
The U.S. Congress—and the entire global economy—dodged a bullet earlier this month, maneuvering around a GOP filibuster that could have caused the U.S. government to default on its debt obligations.
But the filibuster gun is still loaded, and now aimed directly at our right to vote. The Freedom to Vote Act—crucial legislation to protect our most basic democratic rights—is scheduled for a vote later today. Is there any way around the predictable Republican blockade?
There is. Earlier this month, we saw what happens when President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats take a strong stand. On October 5, President Biden said “it’s a real possibility” that Democrats would fix or nix the filibuster to break the logjam on raising the U.S. debt ceiling. Less than 24 hours later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blinked, and an artificially created crisis was averted.
But action on the debt ceiling is far from the only problem where responsible measures are blocked by DC gridlock. There’s a long list of urgent priorities—immigration, climate change, workplace democracy, gun violence, reproductive rights—where a majority of voters want smart, sensible reforms. The U.S. House has addressed many of these issues—but its bills are buried in the graveyard of Mitch McConnell’s Senate. That’s where they’ll stay until we reform arcane Senate rules that allow a determined minority to overturn the will of the majority.
We are board members of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of 75 organizations working for economic, racial and social justice. We’re alarmed to see GOP legislators acting recklessly with our nation’s finances, and our government’s inability to respond forcefully to multiple intersecting crises in public health, our economy, our environment and our communities.
Meanwhile, our democracy itself is in serious trouble. Eighteen states have passed voter suppression laws making it harder to vote. Instead of building on unprecedented turnout achieved during a pandemic in 2020, states are creating new obstacles, especially for Black, Brown and young voters. Slamming the door on voters is the worst possible choice at a time when we need to expand civic participation as an alternative to extremist movements seeking to undermine our democracy.
The culprit is the filibuster, a relic of white supremacy that creates a de facto requirement of a 60-vote supermajority to pass substantive federal legislation. This anti-democratic procedure appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the framers considered—and rejected—supermajority requirements for the ongoing business of our national legislature. Nor is the filibuster part of any existing U.S. statute. It is a rule of the Senate that can be changed at any time.
Gridlock in Congress does not affect everyone equally. The wealthy and privileged can still get budget-busting tax cuts with a 51-vote majority. But when workers, consumers, immigrants and family farmers need help? Sorry, you’ll need 60 votes—or you can try to shoehorn urgent priorities into in an inscrutable process called “budget reconciliation.” This year, a long-overdue increase in the minimum wage and immigration reform were both ruled out of order, not by any of the people’s elected representatives, but by an unelected Senate parliamentarian.
It’s a safe bet that few readers even know this person’s name. Why are we allowing an unaccountable official to make policy decisions that affect tens of millions of Americans?
Here’s a better idea: President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer should stand firm, as they have during the recent standoff over the debt crisis, and call for fixing or nixing the filibuster. There’s plenty of precedent; filibuster rules have been changed several times by both parties. President Biden served 36 years in the Senate, longer than any other senator who went on to the White House. He can put Senate reform on the national agenda. And Leader Schumer and his colleagues have the authority—and responsibility—to bring order to the Senate floor.
Some of us believe the filibuster should be eliminated; others think reforms like a return to the “talking filibuster” can work, so long as there is a path to up-or-down votes on important legislation.
The Freedom to Vote Act, a compromise measure recently introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin, is a fitting vehicle to usher in a new era of transparency and accountability. The bill would rein in the recent trend of voter suppression and give voters—not politicians—the choice of whether to vote early, vote by mail or vote in person on election day.
There was a time when the right to vote was not a partisan issue; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and subsequent renewals were passed with bipartisan majorities. Times have changed, and it’s time to set aside outdated Senate rules. If our government can’t solve our most pressing problems, some people will tune out, while others will turn to hateful rhetoric and dangerous, violent behavior. The antidote to extremism is fundamental reform that protects the right to vote and preserves majority rule, in our communities and in the U.S. Senate.
Tefere Gebre (@Tefere_Gebre) is executive vice president, AFL-CIO; Gustavo Torres (@casaexec) is executive director, CASA; Karen Hobert Flynn (@KHobertFlynn) is president, Common Cause; Erich Pica (@erichpica) is president, Friends of the Earth; Virginia Kase (@KaseVirginia) is CEO, League of Women Voters; Derrick Johnson (@DerrickNAACP) is president and CEO, NAACP.