When Americans head to the polls in November of 2022 to cast their votes in the midterm elections, they will surely be pondering a wide range of issues: How did the Democratic Party, upon recently gaining control of the legislative and executive branches, help put food on the table during COVID-19? How did it work to protect workers’ rights? How did it lower the burden that accessing affordable health care places on working families?
When working people go to the polls next year, they will be voting based on whether they see tangible results from the government that promised to work on their behalf. They will not be voting based on their opinions on the Senate cloture rule, an obscure piece of Senate procedure that is left over from the Jim Crow era. That’s why it’s long overdue for the Senate to abolish the filibuster.
The cloture rule is a piece of Senate procedure that requires sixty votes to end a filibuster on a piece of legislation and bring it to a final vote. The filibuster was popularized by segregationist senators to block civil rights legislation. In fact, the longest “talking” filibuster on record was delivered by Senator Strom Thurmond in 1957 as a means of blocking an early version of the Civil Rights Act. To this day, it persists as a mechanism by which a minority of senators can obstruct any piece of legislation that comes to the floor.
Contrary to popular belief, filibusters do not have to involve one person standing up and speaking for hours on end. All the rule requires to keep a bill from moving to a vote is for forty-one senators to vote “no” on invoking cloture. With Republicans currently holding fifty seats in the Senate, it is nearly impossible for Democrats to overcome the filibuster and move to a vote on any of their agenda items. Republicans’ ability to refuse to invoke cloture has the power to effectively kill any bill that would otherwise pass democratically with a simple majority when actually brought to a floor vote.
In the past several months since President Joe Biden took office, the filibuster has been weaponized to block legislation that would strengthen voting rights and election security, raise the minimum wage to a living wage, make it easier for workers to join unions without the fear of employer retaliation, and allow for a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people in America. Due to the filibuster, it is highly unlikely that many of the large agenda items promised by President Biden during the presidential election will come to fruition once they reach the Senate. It’s become clear that Republicans aren’t likely to compromise.
One frequent objection to the removal of the filibuster is its potential to backfire once the shoe is on the other foot and the Republican Party is back in power. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, recently threatened a “scorched earth” approach to governing if the filibuster is removed. Many Democratic lawmakers are reluctant to abolish the filibuster because the memory of Republicans’ employing the nuclear option to confirm conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett by simple majority is still painfully fresh.
This all or nothing approach is not the point. The United States Senate itself, with its two senators per state makeup, is deeply undemocratic in that it gives disproportionate power to sparsely populated, rural, white, Republican states. Not only does the filibuster add exponentially to the undemocratic nature of the Senate by allowing a minority of senators to obstruct any possible action, it also leads to gridlock for even the most pragmatic of actions. In order for the Senate to be able to continue calling itself “the greatest deliberative body in the world,” those in power need to make it possible for the Senate to actually do something.
In order for the Democratic majority to end a filibuster on a bill in the current Senate, it has to face the insurmountable task of convincing ten Republican senators to defect from the orders of “Grim Reaper” McConnell. Neither party is able to pass any legislation on their respective agendas, and this has led to a stalemate that manifests itself as a striking inability to address crises as they pop up, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As a case in point, the only reason the most recent stimulus bill made it through the Senate is because it was not subject to the filibuster. Other crises that directly impact working people, such as Amazon’s retaliation against workers fighting for safe working conditions, will never see a solution passed through the Senate.
Biden won the presidency on a promise to tackle the various hardships facing everyday people in this country. Abolishing the filibuster is the first step necessary to fulfilling these promises. It has become clear that Democrats can’t control whether or not Senate Republicans will choose to stop obstructing all options for positive change. The only thing they can control is how they choose to respond to this obstruction. It’s past time for Democrats to abolish the filibuster and fight to enact real change for working people.
Featured Graphic by Meegan Minahan/ Heights Editor