While there are good arguments on both sides of the debate, I would abolish the filibuster. But that’s not going to happen, so it would be better to double down on it instead.
Getting rid of the filibuster has become something of a cause among hard left Democrats, but they should be careful what they wish for. While they’re right that the filibuster was used historically to kill civil rights legislation and that it will be used now to stop some of the left’s most ambitious plans, it was also used by Democrats to stop some of the most conservative Republican ideas when they were in power. Democrats used the threat of a filibuster to protect abortion rights and to force more spending in Covid relief bills, among other things.
Still, who convinced me that it should be abolished? None other than Mitch McConnell. The then Senate Majority Leader led the push in 2017 to abolish the filibuster for court appointments, including the Supreme Court. So, if we no longer need 60 votes to confirm someone for a lifetime appointment to one of the most powerful positions in our system, then why should we require it for simple legislation?
In fact, because of McConnell’s move on the Supreme Court filibuster, he’s actually added another reason to abolish it for general bills. The best argument for the filibuster is that it serves as a check against radical legislation in either direction. But that same check can be provided by the high court, which is now far more conservative than the president, congress or the public at large (including me).
I am also concerned that a congress that isn’t keeping up with the demands of the broader public runs the risk of furthering cynicism and eroding support for our entire system.
But no matter. The filibuster isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. At least two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said that they won’t support its demise and that’s the end of the story for now, as Democrats have no margin for error.
But Manchin says that he supports an ingenious solution: make the filibuster real again. For anyone who’s seen Jimmy Stewart struggle to stay on his feet in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” you will understand what Manchin is talking about.
It used to be that in order for a senator to execute a filibuster he needed to hold the floor by talking while standing at his desk or at least being present while his allies were blathering on, reading recipes and whatnot. That not only provided wonderful drama, but it also meant that the length of filibusters was constrained by the limits of human endurance.
These days the filibuster is simply invoked. A senator threatens to do it and that automatically triggers the need for cloture, which requires 60 votes, to cut off a marathon that never even started.
What Manchin is suggesting is that the senate go back to the old system of actually needing to hold the floor. That could result in far fewer filibusters and those that do happen could be broken with patience. It might be just the safety valve that will allow the majority to get its way.
And for those of us who don’t support everything on the liberal agenda, we have Manchin and other moderate senators there to hold the line and demand compromise. If things go much too far, there’s always the chance to go to the Supreme Court, which is actually quite a bit more conservative than my own politics.
So, while I wouldn’t be opposed to abolishing it altogether, the Manchin proposal to require a real flesh and blood filibuster might be a fine alternative.