Imperiled Minimum Wage Increases and LGBTQ+ Discrimination Legislation Have Renewed Calls to End the Anti-Democratic Filibuster
The Stonewall Democratic Club, the nation’s oldest LGBTQ+ progressive political advocacy organization, passed a resolution on January 25th calling for the Democratic majority in the United States Senate to vote to abolish the filibuster. A $15 minimum wage and the Equality Act, which was passed in the House last week, face certain death in the U.S. Senate because of Republican opposition, despite the Democratic majority in that chamber. We urge California Senator Dianne Feinstein, as well as other Democratic Senators who have previously expressed opposition to eliminating the filibuster, to end this anti-democratic tool.
The filibuster is a procedural weapon used to advance the interests of the minority over the interests of the majority. The rule requires a 60-vote supermajority to end debate on most topics before they can be voted on. Unlike the “talking filibuster” of popular imagination, a Senator does not have to stand in the chamber arguing against a bill. Instead, by simply sending an email registering an objection to a bill, they prevent a bill from being voted on until 60 senators vote for “cloture” to “end debate.” Only after “cloture” can the bill itself be voted on.
Defenders of the filibuster tend to cite two primary reasons for its preservation: that it is a tradition and that it fosters bipartisan compromise. Both of these are false. The filibuster helps create perverse incentive structures for the minority party to thwart the policy agenda of the majority and blame the majority for the gridlock that the minority itself has created. The Senate is already an unrepresentative body — the Democratic Senate majority represents over 40 million more Americans than the Republican minority — and the 60 vote threshold creates an arbitrary roadblock that can further thwart popular policies from being enacted.
Notably, the constitutional framers considered and rejected a supermajority requirement on legislation. Writing in Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton explained that the supermajority requirement would be a “poison” used to “embarrass [an] administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”
The modern filibuster grew out of similar reactionary efforts to prevent bans on poll taxes, anti-lynching laws, and other Civil Rights legislation.
Further, the “tradition” of the filibuster can trace its origins not to the constitution, but to the Jim Crow South. In the run-up to the Civil War, the talking filibuster was developed by Senator John C. Calhoun to impose the minority views of the planter class in their quest to preserve and expand slavery. The modern filibuster grew out of similar reactionary efforts to prevent bans on poll taxes, anti-lynching laws, and other Civil Rights legislation.
Still, the silent filibuster used today was not even widely employed until the early 2000s and turbo-charged to oppose the policy initiatives of President Barack Obama.
The filibuster has been abolished for Republican policy priorities but not for Democratic ones. Under the “Byrd Rule” for budget reconciliation, only a simple majority is required for bills that affect federal spending and revenue (which is itself a determination of the Senate Parliamentarian). Thus, both tax cuts and Obamacare repeal can be passed through budget reconciliation. Following rule changes on the ability to filibuster federal appointments in 2014 and 2017 respectively, only a simple majority is required for the confirmation of rightwing judges to lifetime appointments on the federal bench. As evidenced by former President Trump’s legislative record, this represents the entire objective of a Republican unified government.
Think about this for a moment: Obamacare required 60 votes to pass the Senate. However, Republicans were one vote shy of repealing it through the reconciliation process which only requires 50 votes. A system that requires a supermajority to pass legislation but only a simple majority to destroy it and upend millions of lives is a grotesque departure from the very notion of democratic self-governance.
Finally, the filibuster is a needless and arbitrary “choke point” which undermines faith in government and politics. When voters are unhappy with the “direction the country is going,” discerning who is responsible is muddied. To wit, Democrats have unified control of the government and are unable to enact their agenda because of an arbitrary supermajority threshold, and then are punished by voters time and time again for congressional gridlock.
Some Democrats warn that the party will regret the elimination of the filibuster when the party inevitably finds itself in the minority again, but we disagree. Voters can better evaluate if policies and parties are successful if they’re able to actually implement the agendas they run on. Parties run on platforms, and they implement those policies in part or whole, and they should and must be punished or rewarded accordingly.
On February 27th, in a series of tweets, California Senator Alex Padilla announced his opposition to the filibuster. As he explained: “Whether it’s stopping widespread assaults on voting rights, addressing the climate crisis, or paying people a living wage, we realistically won’t be able to get much done in this Congress unless we eliminate the filibuster. The future is in our hands. Fortune favors the bold.” Senator Padilla understands the stakes. For the sake of our country and our democracy, it is time for the filibuster to go.