By Robert Reich
Mitch McConnell may no longer be Senate Majority Leader, but Republicans can still block legislation supported by the vast majority. That’s because of a Senate rule called the filibuster. If we have any hope of safeguarding our democracy and ushering in transformative change, Democrats must wield their power to get rid of the filibuster – and fast.
The filibuster is a Senate rule requiring a 60-vote supermajority to pass legislation. Which means a minority of senators can often block legislation that the vast majority of Americans want and need.
Even without the filibuster, Senate Republicans already have outsized influence. The 50 of them represent 41 and a half million fewer Americans than the 50 Senate Democrats. Wyoming, with 579,000 people gets two senators. California, with 40 million also gets two senators.
Meanwhile, Republican-controlled states are gearing up to pass even more restrictive voting laws along with additional partisan gerrymandering that could enable Republicans in Washington to maintain power for the next decade.
The best way to prevent this is with national election standards through the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act – but these important bills are stymied as long as the filibuster remains in place.
The filibuster is rooted in racism. In the late 19th century, Southern senators crafted the “talking filibuster” – in which a member could delay the passage of a bill with a long-winded speech – in order to protect the pro-slavery Senate minority.
The current version of the filibuster, requiring 60 votes to end debate, was popularized in the Jim Crow era by Southern senators seeking to prevent passage of civil rights legislation. From the end of Reconstruction to 1964, the filibuster was used only to kill civil rights bills.
Senators can now use a process called “reconciliation” to pass legislation on budgetary matters, requiring a bare majority of 51 votes. But the filibuster can still stop bills on voting rights, the climate crisis, campaign finance reform, and other crucial legislation Americans need – and on which Joe Biden has based much of his presidency.
Getting rid of the filibuster is also good politics. As long as the filibuster is intact, Senate Republicans could keep the Senate in gridlock, and then run in the 2022 midterms on Democrats’ failure to get anything done.
The good news is the filibuster is a Senate rule. As I said, it’s not in the Constitution. It’s not even in a law. Like any other Senate rule it can be changed by a simple majority of senators.
With Vice President Kamala Harris now serving as the tie-breaking vote, Senate Democrats can and must abolish the filibuster.
There are a few conservative Senate Democrats who don’t like the idea, but Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer can get them to fall in line. That’s what leadership is all about. They must end the filibuster and get America moving. Now.