the national interest

Joe Manchin Says He Might Reform the Filibuster and Save American Democracy

Joe Manchin. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the fate of American democracy rests on Joe Manchin’s willingness to permit democratic election reforms. Manchin’s statement on NBC’s Meet the Press that he would consider reforms to the filibuster, and therefore potentially allow a majority vote on election law, is therefore potentially momentous.

Manchin’s argument for the filibuster has been, depending on how generously you look at it, either incoherent or cagey. Asked by Chuck Todd if he would allow a majority vote on election reforms under any circumstances, Manchin waxed idealistic about the need for deliberation, regular order, and the need to allow Republicans to negotiate and deliver speeches.

“I will change my mind if we need to go to a reconciliation” — meaning a 50-vote process currently permitted only for budget bills — if “we have to get something done,” Manchin said, but only after “my Republican friends have the ability to have their say also.” He did not rule out using the process for election reforms, merely insisting, “there’s no need to go into reconciliation until the other process has failed.”

Senate reformers have long viewed the filibuster as an archaic, accidental feature that emerged despite the Founders explicit aversion to a supermajority requirement. But the reformers have also argued for measures that would curtail it without fully eliminating it as a mechanism for debate. (The filibuster emerged in the 19th century and was reformed several times, and the modern routine supermajority requirement has only existed since about the 1990s.) Michael Ettlinger, Norman Ornstein, and others have suggested ways to permit determined majorities to pass vital reforms without going directly to flat-out majority rule.

Manchin seemed to be indicating openness for those sorts of reforms on Sunday. He cited one popular reform, making a filibuster “a little bit more painful,” by placing the onus of obstruction on the minority, rather than forcing 60 supporters to be continuously present to resume debate.

Ironically, it is the misleading nature of pro-filibuster propaganda that has enabled Manchin to co-opt its themes. Filibuster advocates present the device as a requirement to allow “debate,” likening it to a kind of free-speech right for senators. “If I should have the opportunity to send into the countries behind the Iron Curtain one freedom and only one, I know what my choice would be,” claimed then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, in 1949, when he was still an ardent segregationist, “I would send to those nations the right of unlimited debate in their legislative chambers.”

In fact, the modern filibuster inhibits rather than enables debate. So Manchin can propound on the need to allow consideration of bills, and permit Republicans to speak on them extensively, because those are not the actual goals of filibuster supporters. The real purpose of the mechanism is to impose a 60-vote requirement (one that has already been eliminated for executive-branch appointments, fiscal policy, and judges).

What makes the cause so pressing is that, in the wake of Donald Trump’s failed autogolpe, Republicans are undertaking a national wave of voter suppression. Their professed goal is to “restore confidence” in elections. But since the only reason for voters to lack confidence in the accuracy of election results is lies circulated by Trump and his allies, the only conditions under which confidence can be restored is Republican victories. Fair elections with high levels of participation is what Republicans don’t have confidence in.

Vote-suppression measures currently racing through legislatures in states like Georgia include bans on Sunday voting, a staple of the Black community’s mobilization, and even bans on giving water and snacks to voters standing in lines. The latter may seem like a trivial change, but the Republican vote-suppression agenda is designed to create long voting lines in Black areas, in part be preventing early and mail voting that reduce the pressure on Election Day turnout. Attending to the hunger and thirst of voters in lines that can last for hours is the most minimal palliative, and even that is too much for Republicans to concede.

All this is to say that the status quo is not one of the possible options. Either Republicans will crack down on voting and re-gerrymander legislative maps to lock in their majorities for a decade starting with the midterm elections, or else Democrats will pass reforms to give voters a chance. Manchin seemed to have closed the door on allowing such reforms. Now he has cracked it open.

Joe Manchin Might Reform the Filibuster and Save Democracy