By: Jonathan Levin  | 

Why Democrats Should Keep the Filibuster

In 2013, after blaming Republicans for blocking then-President Obama’s nominees based on politically-motivated obstruction, Senate Democrats exercised the nuclear option, removing the Senate filibuster (which required 60 votes for confirmation) for all presidential executive and judicial (other than Supreme Court) nominees. While the nuclear option allowed Democrats to appoint Obama’s nominees over Republican opposition, it also allowed Republicans to do the same when Trump became president. Additionally, using the 2013 nuclear option as a precedent, Republicans got rid of the remaining filibuster rules for Supreme Court nominees, allowing them to appoint three justices without any input from Democrats.

Recently, there has been renewed discussion about entirely removing the remaining Senate filibuster to allow President Biden to pass controversial legislation that otherwise wouldn’t be able to pass the 50-50 Senate without bipartisan support. While many Democrats argue that the filibuster’s time has passed and that it should be scrapped, such a decision would not be in the country’s, nor ultimately in the Democratic party’s, best interests.

Removing the filibuster has adverse effects. Take judicial appointments, for instance. Now that nominees no longer need 60 votes to be confirmed, judicial appointees are likely to be at polar opposite sides of the political spectrum, and to be confirmed with little to no support from the other party. That is not something that would encourage public trust in our courts. Getting rid of the remaining filibuster, which would allow controversial and highly impactful legislation to be signed into law along party lines, would only sow further division in an already highly divided country. Ignoring a Republican reprisal — McConnell’s threat of “a sort of nuclear winter” — Democrats will not only ensure the passage of their own agenda, but also a Republican agenda on a future date, when Democrats find themselves in the minority.

To be clear, the filibuster will not go away; both Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) (who also voted against the nuclear option in 2013), the two most moderate Democratic senators (Manchin’s state, West Virginia, went to Trump by nearly 40% in November), said they won’t support efforts to remove the filibuster, thus ensuring its survival for the time being. Nevertheless, as long as the filibuster is blamed for the Senate’s inefficiency, this conversation will come up again.      

So, what’s the solution? While some, like Senator Joe Manchin, support making the filibuster “more painful” to use (such as requiring senators to continuously hold the lectern to prevent a vote — something that President Biden supports too), that will not solve the problem. The issue isn’t the filibuster, but rather the unwillingness of senators to work together; this is what Senator Sinema referred to when she said that “I think the solution is for Senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”

The country has gotten further divided, and the Senate is a reflection of that. Both Democrats and Republicans, when they controlled the White House, have blamed the other side for obstructing their presidential nominees based on politics — an idea that holds at least some truth. Obama noted in 2013, before then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exercised the nuclear option, how 30 of his nominees were filibustered in less than four years, compared to the 20 who were filibustered in the previous 60 years. Similarly, McConnell blamed Democrats in 2019 for obstructing presidential nominees based on politics, saying that Democrats often delayed nominees for months before confirming them — sometimes unanimously. 

The problems listed above only concern nominees, but there are plenty of other areas in the Senate that are not functioning as well as they used to be. Congress’s approval rating, 36% on March 15 (which, believe it or not, is the highest it’s been since 2009 — likely a result of both the stimulus bill and Trump’s impeachment) is indicative of this. Furthermore, although Congress has historically received low approval ratings, the past decade has been its most brutal approval-wise since World War II, with its approval rating regularly in the teens and low 20s. This should give us pause. As Senator Sinema said, and as a group of 20 Senators from both parties are working towards accomplishing, our senators must step up to the plate and begin working across the aisle. Getting rid of the filibuster won’t make anything better. Only Senators — by working together — can make our democracy work and restore public confidence in our Congress.


Photo Caption: The U.S. Senate Chamber

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons