Democrats Should Trust Democracy and Resolve to Kill the Filibuster

Cory Booker doesn’t want to talk about getting rid of the filibuster. That should be a problem for him on the presidential campaign trail. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

For decades, there’s been an on-again, off-again debate among Democrats and progressives generally about the future of the Senate filibuster. Support left-of-center for that ancient reactionary tool has largely waxed with Republican control of the Senate and waned as Democrats took the wheel. But with so many Democratic senators running for president this year, the subject has come back up with a renewed intensity, particularly as candidates laid out the kind of ambitious policy goals that at least 41 members of the upper chamber are likely to oppose at any given moment. Paul Waldman notes the contradiction:

Among the reasonable criticisms of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is that he has extremely ambitious policy ideas — single-payer health care, free college tuition and so on — but not much in the way of ideas about how to pass them through Congress, other than to lead a popular movement so compelling that it will force Republicans to yield to its power and vote for bills they find abhorrent to everything they believe.

Still, it was something of a surprise to hear Sanders tell CBS’s John Dickerson this week that “I’m not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster,” seeming to dismiss the idea that a 60-vote requirement to pass legislation through the Senate would be an impediment to his agenda.

Maybe Sanders knows something about the openness of Republican senators to democratic socialism that the rest of us don’t, but he has a good deal of company even among his fellow presidential candidates.

As Waldman notes, Cory Booker appears flatly opposed to doing anything about the legislative filibuster, and Kirsten Gillibrand seems to lament the loss of the judicial filibuster. Two other 2020 presidential candidates, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, along with potential candidate Sherrod Brown, signed a 2017 letter opposing elimination of the filibuster. Indeed, among current candidates from the Senate, only Elizabeth Warren has expressed some openness to the radical (i.e. abolitionist) filibuster-reform cause that most progressive policy wonks appear to support.

So would these candidates flip-flop if they became president, had a narrow Senate majority, and realized the filibuster might enable Republicans to block their entire agenda? And how do we know they would, even if we suspect they might? The fear of what Republicans might do if the shoe is again on the other foot might actually outweigh their interest in enacting all those policies they advocated on the campaign trail. And to be clear about it, that means they didn’t really care that much about these goals at all.

Indeed, as Brian Beutler points out, the unwillingness to come out flatly against the filibuster suggests a more systemic refusal to embrace a full commitment to popular democracy at a time when Republicans are using the anti-democratic aspects of our system to the absolute maximum to gain and hold onto power:

What these senators mean is that for all the broad left’s justified alarm about the brittleness of our democracy, and the hardening of minority rule in America, 41 out of 100 senators, representing much less than 41 percent of the U.S. population, should be allowed to doom their ambitions. Even a Senate that could reliably pass legislation with 51 votes would still not be a majoritarian institution. The senators from the 25 smallest states would still have as much power as the senators from the 25 largest states, and because of how our population is sorted, the Senate would still allow a minority of the country, through their elected representatives, to hobble the progressive agenda ….

[U]nless that changes, the primary will be less a contest to determine which ideas a unified Democratic government might enact than a grand but meaningless celebration of liberal empowerment. A laboratory simulation to determine where consensus among Democratic base voters lies, before that consensus gets dashed upon the shoals of Republican obstruction.

The Democrats’ infatuation with the filibuster may place key items on the progressive agenda out of reach, but it is most galling as an indicator of how many Democrats intend to respond both to the harms conservatism has caused and to the threat to democracy Trump has thrown into relief.

What makes this refusal to take on the filibuster especially ironic is how it conflicts with the entire narrative of a Democratic Party that learned its lessons from the Clinton and Obama years, and is determined to get big things done right away in 2021 instead of buying into the myth of bipartisanship that Republicans long ago abandoned. As Beutler asks, with the filibuster in place, what will really change?

 [T]hese Democrats are saying that come 2021, should voters sweep Trump out of power, it will be time, once again, to turn the page. Obama succumbed to the same temptation in 2009, creating an accountability void for an administration that had illegally spied on Americans and established a global network of secret torture prisons. Obama’s aim, naive though it may have been, was to bolster the norms upholding the peaceful transition of power and buy enough good will from Republicans in Congress to allow him to govern. He was rewarded with the maniacal bad faith of a minority determined to destroy his presidency and a successor who has attempted to wield the federal law enforcement apparatus as a weapon of partisan retribution against members of the last administration.

Some rationalizers of the status quo may point out the availability of the budget reconciliation process as a way around the Senate filibuster. But as Republicans demonstrated with their failed effort to repeal Obamacare in 2017, that process is very constraining, and probably won’t accommodate progressive legislation that’s not reducible to appropriations and revenues.

And in any event, shouldn’t the Democratic Party be determined as a matter of principle to get rid of institutional obstacles to majority rule that aren’t necessary for the protection of fundamental rights? Is a half-authoritarian system governed by conservative small-state senators in conjunction with a President who lost the popular vote perpetually acceptable to these brave progressives?

A more frankly democratic stance by Democrats won’t be painless, obviously. Aside from the damage Republicans may be able to inflict when they do win elections, Democrats must also deal forthrightly with the claim that they are trying to reverse adverse election results by seeking to remove Trump from office before his first term is over.

It may be time to conclude that for Democrats tolerating (while fighting) Trump for another two years is vastly preferable to accepting the ever-more-entrenched minority rule his party has come to rely on for much of its power. If Trumpism means anything, it means a rearguard action to deny our people self-government on grounds that the country has lost its greatness and requires rule by a righteous remnant of “real” Americans composed of taxpaying Jesus-worshiping gun-toting patriarchs. Progressives have long quoted Paul Wellstone in identifying themselves as “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” That’s simply not consistent with a willingness to maintain the Senate filibuster. This needs to be a 2020 campaign issue.

Democrats Should Trust Democracy and Kill the Filibuster