Kill The Filibuster, Unite The Country
Never say “no” to progress. Let us air our political disagreements transparently.
I used to attend improvisation class. I don’t remember exactly how I found the class. I was single at the time and I was not into the bar scene, and I wanted to do something different. I think I ran across an ad in the OC Weekly for the improvisation class. I had many great and fun times at that class, but the one thing that I took away from the class was this:
When you’re on stage for improvisation, the golden rule is to never say ‘no’. Whatever happens on stage, roll with it.
During an improvisation sketch, the word ‘no’ blocks the flow of the improvisation, forcing everyone else to work around the ‘no’. Improvisation requires everyone to cooperate on the spur of the moment. Stage improvisation requires everyone to play their part, to err on the side of cooperation. I still carry the spirit of those improvisation classes with me to this day, and I will never forget them.
I have just finished reading the President’s remarks to a joint session of Congress, April 28th, 2021. The president’s speech recounted much of the progress made since he took office in January of this year. And yes, there were a few platitudes and there were a few omissions. I’m not really one for watching speeches as the applause is tedious. But I did notice one thing:
Investments in jobs and infrastructure like the ones we’re talking about have often had bipartisan support. Vice President Harris and I meet regularly in the Oval Office with Democrats and Republicans to discuss the American Jobs Plan. And I applaud a group of Republican Senators who just put forward their proposal. So, let’s get to work.
So now we have an ongoing conversation about how to rebuild our economy going again. I’m glad to see Republicans putting forward their own ideas about how we should upgrade and maintain our infrastructure. Republicans say that Democrats want to spend too much. I thought I heard Donald Trump telling us in the last couple of years that he wanted to go big on infrastructure. But this year is not the year for that, probably because a Republican is not in the White House — then they’ll be ready to spend big again. Joe Biden proposed $1.9 trillion in spending, the GOP responded with about $650 billion in spending. Neither side has emphasized the term of the spending proposals — about 8 years — removing an important context for the debate.
So then after Joe Biden’s speech, the Republicans stand up Tim Scott, the only black Republican Senator, to speak in response to the president’s address. Two interesting features of Scott’s speech stood out. He used the word “socialist”, a word intended to strike fear into the Republican base of voters as an organizing and galvanizing tactic. He also used the word “filibuster”, another word loaded with fear, and that is a word that is completely absent from Joe Biden’s speech. Here is what Scott said about the filibuster:
And, no, the same filibuster that President Obama and President Biden praised when they were senators, the same filibuster that the Democrats used to kill my police reform bill last year, has not suddenly become a racist relic just because the shoe is on the other foot.
So Tim Scott complains that the police reform bill he wrote never saw a debate in the Democratically-controlled Senate. You know I would have liked to have seen his bill debated in the Senate. I would like to see the end of the filibuster just to be sure that both sides get to speak so that more bills make it to the floor for debate. Without the filibuster, if one Congress passes a bad bill, the next Congress can fix it.
I think there is a sizeable fraction of Congress that is terrified that the filibuster could one day soon, be eliminated. I am hopeful that I will see that in my lifetime. Tim Scott complained of a power grab on the part of Democrats, as if the Republican party would never engage in an unethical power grab. With the filibuster, a power grab is hard to fix later on. Without it, bad legislation has no protection from the next Congress.
I can recall the dire warnings of Mitch McConnell, talking about a scorched earth Senate. It seemed to me that McConnell doesn’t really know how the Senate will work without a filibuster because no one living today knows what life would be like without it. Few are willing to admit that the filibuster acts more like an incorrectly installed backflow valve than a pillar of our republic.
Seriously, since the abuse of the filibuster really started to ramp up starting in the 1970s, our nation has undergone a slow, inexorable drift to the right. As the use of the filibuster increased, our public policy choices became more conservative, more right-wing, despite polling to the contrary. At the same time, our country became more polarized, more violent, and inequality reached levels similar to what we saw just before the Great Depression. At the national level, I see our people bitterly divided as a direct result of the backward legislative backflow valve, the filibuster. And this backflow valve will only pass conservative legislation by design.
To unite our country, we must dispose of the filibuster. Ending the filibuster will have a moderating effect on our politics. Instead of the gridlock we now see, without the filibuster, we would see legislation pass more on the merits than the points it would score against “the others”. Extreme legislation might pass one year, but in the next term of Congress, extreme legislation could be repealed more easily without a filibuster in the way.
Wild swings in policy would be tiring for the people, and they would show their fatigue by voting out the politicians who cause pain for the people if they can. The filibuster, by its very nature, is a huge disincentive for progress, and its only purpose is obstruction. Observe the chart below from Politico and it’s easy to see why Trump wanted to kill the filibuster:
A cloture vote is a vote to end the debate. Filibusters are supposed to allow for unlimited debates and 60 votes are required to end debate. While it’s true that some members of the Senate actually take the podium and talk, most filibusters are silent, leaving the public unaware that a filibuster was even held. Contrary to any notion that “the minority should be heard” the silent filibuster doesn’t require anyone to speak, allowing one anonymous senator to hold up a bill without informing the public of his or her objections to it. That’s like a husband and wife retreating to separate rooms, refusing to discuss a sensitive subject.
It’s hard to be united if we’re not talking. Ending the filibuster will force the members of the senate to air their objections to every bill. Ending the filibuster means there is no permanent legislation, exposing every law to challenge and repeal. And knowing that a law might be more easily repealed with the next term of Congress will have a moderating effect on the legislation that is proposed, much more so than the threat of a filibuster. Doing away with the silent filibuster forces everyone in the Senate to speak out, on the record, and to make their objections to legislation cost something in terms of political capital. Ending the filibuster forces everyone to accept change, and reduces any incentive to achieve the unassailable power the filibuster now provides.
There is something else that will come about with the death of the filibuster: a more agile Congress. Look at how much time was spent on the last enhanced unemployment bill when Trump was president. While millions were out of work, unable to pay their rent, put food on the table, and care for their children, both sides bickered, with every move blocked by a filibuster, anonymously. When something needed to be done in an emergency, a silent and anonymous filibuster was there to stop Congress in its tracks.
If we want to unite our country and bring our people together again, we cannot be ruled by a minority, no matter what side that minority is on. The filibuster is all about minority rule, nothing more. The obstruction allowed by the filibuster has created a great division among our people. The filibuster has allowed a silent minority to hold up the work of the people for ransom. If we want our country back, we must abolish the filibuster.