The Filibuster Will Survive Because a Few Democrats Are Smart Enough Not To Kill It
The Senate could vote later today on a sweeping overhaul of federal election rules that has been a priority for Democrats since they took control of Congress and the White House in November.
Could is the keyword, of course. Republicans are threatening to filibuster the bill—read Walter Olson for a primer on the legislation’s shortcomings—and it seems unlikely that the tenuous 50-seat Democratic majority will be able to muster the necessary 60 votes to break that filibuster if it happens. That’s why the For The People Act has become the latest high-stakes focal point in Washington’s most beloved insider political drama, “Who Wants To Kill The Filibuster?”
This is a recurring dilemma because of a funny little detail in the Senate’s rules. Even though it requires 60 votes to invoke what’s called “cloture” and thereby end a filibuster, the rules also require only a simple majority to change the Senate’s rules—including the rules about how many votes are necessary to invoke cloture. The filibuster persists not because it is impossible or even difficult to abolish it, in other words, but merely because each subsequent Senate majority recognizes that it won’t retain control forever and will someday want to make use of the filibuster to stop the other team’s agenda.
Politics seem to be becoming more short-sighted, however, and the temptation to abolish the filibuster has been growing. It has already been abolished in the name of speeding along Supreme Court nominees and other judicial appointments. The so-called “legislative filibuster” is now a target of some on the political left, who see it (not entirely incorrectly) as an anti-democratic tool that exists only to slow the passage of big legislation, like the voting rights bill the Senate might consider later today.
Democrats had not even retaken control of the federal government yet when some leading liberal voices began clamoring for the death of the filibuster. Writing at Vox last October, Ezra Klein laid out the argument for why the filibuster must go. Notably, the voting rights bill that Democrats are now using to push this debate forward was only one of several excuses (or opportunities) Klein identified for abolishing the filibuster. He wasn’t arguing that the filibuster should be abolished to accomplish any specific policy goal; rather, he was arguing that it should be abolished so Democrats can accomplish all of their policy goals at once.
Democrats should be thankful that not a
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