According to the New York Times article “For Democracy to Stay, the Filibuster Must Go” by The Editorial Board, back in early March, the House of Representatives passed H.R.1. This bill is a set of reforms that would “strengthen voting rights and election security, ban partisan gerrymandering, reduce big money in politics and establish ethic codes for Supreme Court Justices, the President, and other executive branch officials.” Its goal is to rebuild and reinforce the currently crumbling foundations of American democracy. However, despite having the support of at least 50 senators and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President, Kamala Harris, it is still not enough to get this important bill passed because of the filibuster which requires a supermajority of 60 votes. The filibuster is a centuries-old tool used in Senate that has been turned into a weapon for strangling the functions of government. If America is to be governed fairly and properly, and if democracy wants to stay, the filibuster must go.
The filibuster is a dangerous tool that threatens democratic stability. Proponents claim that filibusters are necessary to prevent a tyranny of the majority in Senate in that it allows the minority to essentially talk the bill to death or change it in some way that is acceptable to the minority. They see it as a longstanding custom that creates a bipartisan process for debate on bills that takes into account the views of all Americans- not just those in the majority party. While it sounds good in theory, it can easily undermine the democratic system if abused. In the book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, they discuss the importance of democratic norms as the constitutional guardrails to securing democracy. One of these tools is institutional forbearance which is the intentional restraint of using one’s legal powers in order to respect the spirit of law. The Senate’s use of filibusters falls under this idea of institutional forbearance, but too often in our country’s past, restraint has not been used. Instead, it has led to more polarization and gridlock within Congress- suppressing important bills and reforms to be passed. The filibuster does not facilitate bipartisan cooperation as proponents claim. It requires 60 vote; it doesn’t require interparty compromise. Filibusters lead to democratic erosion because they obstruct the functioning of government and the passing of good and necessary legislation.
Not only is the usage of a filibuster a threat to democracy, but the changes in which they are attempting to suppress also undermine democratic values. Throughout history, filibusters have continuously been used by those who reject inclusive democracy. For example, South Carolina senator, John C. Calhoun, used it to protect the interests of slaveholders like himself from the majority, and Senator Strom Thurmond used it to kill multiple civil rights bills. Filibusters have all too commonly been used to suppress important democratic ideals such as the fundamental value of freedom as seen in these historical examples. In Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Daron Acemoglu, he describes democracies as governments for the people and by the people in which there is political equality and most people can vote. The filibusters that undermined these rights and freedoms to African Americans were a huge threat to the meaning of democracy.
In regards to the recent H.R.1 bill, the filibuster is being used to undermine other key democratic characteristics such as the right to vote, free and fair elections, and checks and balances on branches of government. In “Elections Without Democracy”, Larry Diamond describes that the distinction between electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism turns crucially on the freedom, fairness, inclusiveness, and meaningfulness of election. Free meaning that there are few legal barriers to enter the political arena, there is not coercion is voting, and candidates and supporters are free to campaign and solicit voters. Fair meaning that elections are administered by a neutral authority, precautions against voter fraud exist, secrecy of the ballot, etc. Democratic regression occurs when these important electoral procedures are messed with. This is the case with the filibuster on the H.R.1 bill which aims to reinforce and strengthen protections for voting and elections. If these political reforms cannot be undertaken due to the filibuster, Republican leaders will only continue to establish minority rule and gain large legislative majorities in states despite winning fewer votes statewide than Democrats. It will allow states to push more voting restrictions under the false impression that it is for protecting election security. The H.R.1 bill is crucial because it would be a federal law protecting all voters and abolishing voter restrictions put in place purely for partisan gain.
The Senate filibuster is stifling our democracy. It supposedly protects the interests of the minority and permits full debate on the bill, but in reality, it’s power is abused and curtails the opportunity for any debate at all. In the past, it has been used to block civil rights legislation and is now being used to stop democratic reforms supported by broad majorities. Therefore, if the Senate wants to be responsive to all Americans as democracy is intended to do, the filibuster must go.
I definitely agree with you on how the filibuster is a good idea in theory but has not worked out in reality. The filibuster was always undemocratic but would work for the minority if both sides respected its use to block legislation they disagreed with beyond just partisan reasons. The Senate Republicans have manipulated the filibuster to punish the Democrats such as allowing simple majorities to confirm Supreme Court nominees, and to strip down popular measures like the ACA. As you pointed out, without the institutional forbearance to protect democracy, Congress will continue to be in gridlock.
By blocking HR1, the GOP is feeding into an “us vs them” narrative and painting the Democrats as elites who are willing to do anything to keep power. However, the GOP is limiting democracy at the state and local level by passing voter suppression bills based on false election fraud reports. The GOP has also blocked DC statehood, which would be a step toward rebalancing the Senate and enfranchising close to 700,000 people. Instead, the GOP claims that DC does not have the necessary requirements to be a state. This puts the Democrats in a bad situation, to stop democratic backsliding they have to play into the GOP’s narrative of them taking away “democratic traditions,” and limiting the power of rural Americans.
Protecting democratic institutions is only a priority for one party at the moment. Under the Biden Administration, the GOP has become a disloyal opposition defined by Linz and Stephan. The GOP has called the election a fraud, undermining the basic trust in government that democracies are based on for their own gain. The GOP base now wants to limit the federal government’s ability to control voting rights. Erosion is coming from both the top of the government and from the electorate. By not eliminating the filibuster both the GOP and the Democrats are letting the erosion continue.