The filibuster blocks climate action, but eliminating it is worse

Brandon Pytel
Mar 6 · 3 min read

Joe Manchin might be onto something.

The moderate Democratic senator from West Virginia has repeatedly opposed dismantling the filibuster — a legislative tool that allows Senate minority parties to block any bill indefinitely. Manchin recently doubled-down on his sentiment, saying he’d “never” support ending the tool.

And though that opposition foils Democrats’ short-term plans, it may prove the best long-term decision for fighting climate change.

On the surface, eliminating the filibuster seems like a no-brainer for a Democratic party that just pulled off a hat trick. Without a filibuster, Democrats have the numbers to push through sweeping bills on voting rights, D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood, and the grand-daddy of them all: climate change.

That package of legislation on its own is worth really considering eliminating the filibuster — long-term consequences be damned. But it’s those long-term, uncertain effects that are most dangerous.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has voiced repeated opposition to eliminating the filibuster. Photo credit: Third Way Think Tank/Flickr

The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. And though Democrats control both houses and the White House today, it’s terrifying to think what a Republican-controlled Congress without a filibuster could do in the future.

The Republican Party has already shown what happens with a simple majority: Senate Republicans rushed the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, likely erasing decades of environmental action.

Republicans also largely protect Big Oil, ignore climate change, and fuel post-truth and anti-science movements. If this ideology makes up their base, think how it would be applied to unchecked partisan legislation.

Take what’s happening in state legislatures as a warning. After false claims of a fraudulent election (and one insurrection later), state-level Republicans are now passing voter suppression laws, laws that historically marginalize and silence Black and brown communities. It’s not hard, then, to picture an unchecked, Republican-controlled Congress trying to pass some bullshit anti-voting law on the federal level.

Eliminating the filibuster may prove unwise for other reasons, too. For one, it makes climate even more of a partisan issue, entrenching each side further into their party, unwilling to compromise. That result doesn’t make for moderate, collaborative legislation — it makes for no legislation.

And that partisanship can impede progress through an entire presidency. In 2011, Obama avoided the filibuster with his healthcare bill (he had 60 Democratic or Independent senators), but he spent so much political capital that Republicans largely refused to work with him after they took back the House a year later.

If Biden goes all-in on one climate bill, he may easily be strapped when it comes to healthcare, voting, infrastructure, and other key priorities. Since climate is intersectional, we can’t just squeeze it into an “environmental” bill without considering how the crisis affects energy, defense, agriculture, housing, civil rights, and more.

It’s frustrating to see yet another sweeping climate bill introduced in the House this week, knowing it’s dead on arrival in the Senate. And it’s tempting to just say fuck it and eliminate the filibuster — Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” mantra doesn’t age well after four years of Trump.

But time and time again, strictly partisan bills show, at best, a shaky permanence, and the other side of the coin — an unchecked, Republican-controlled Congress — is worth avoiding at all costs.

For now, there exists other tools to get climate action passed, such as budget reconciliation, emergency declarations, and executive orders, the latter of which Biden has shown he’s unafraid to use.

Like it or not, Joe Manchin holds a lot of power, as we’ve just seen with Biden’s stimulus package. And though a 73-year-old moderate from an aggressively red state hardly seems like the future of U.S. politics, his political calculations on the filibuster may offer a lesson or two about the long-term fight for climate action.

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Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

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