The Dems’ Candidates Need to Debate the Filibuster

There are good arguments for and against getting rid of the legislative filibuster in the Senate. I’m generally in agreement with Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, a progressive who opposes the change, saying, “No, we’d turn into the House.” What I am more firmly against is postponing the debate, which is why I really do not like Bernie Sanders’s comments below:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), another potential White House contender, gave a nearly 30-minute speech on Thursday touting his plans to tax the wealthy. But he wasn’t quite ready to have a debate on how to pass it in the Senate with 41 senators able to block it: “Very good discussion. But not for today, OK? First of all we’ve got to take back [power]. You’re too far ahead.”

I could not disagree more with this response. The key context of every Democratic promise made by every Democratic contender for the presidential nomination is whether or not they have any realistic plan for actually succeeding. If they don’t, then their promises are so deceiving as to be irresponsibly dishonest.

Some of the senators queried in this Politico article are actually responsive to the question. For example, Elizabeth Warren notes that the Republicans passed a tax cut using budget reconciliation rules, which is one way to get around the filibuster. This can be used for things that directly impact the budget, but it’s not a magic trick for escaping the need to get sixty votes for most substantive legislation.

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut isn’t running for president, but his response is almost as bad as Sanders’.

“I would be shocked if the filibuster sticks around for the entirety of my second term in the Senate,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who was re-elected last year. “It is very hard to figure out how you do a major health care reform without changing the rules.”

Murphy said he’s open to changes to the rules but said his party shouldn’t get ahead of themselves: “We’ll win first and worry about how to get stuff done second.”

You’d think the presidency of Donald Trump would provide a big warning about winning first and figuring out how to govern afterwards. If you go out on the campaign trail and make a bunch of promises that you can’t keep, you’re going to suffer some nasty consequences and the already monumental cynicism and distrust of the electorate will only grow more intense.

It’s not that I think the candidates need to spend a lot of time explaining complicated Senate rules and procedures to the public. What they ought to do instead is craft their policies realistically, and if their plans are ambitious and likely to run into a legislative filibuster, they need to explain some theory of how they can overcome this. In 2016, Bernie Sanders kept resorting to some vague promise of a revolutionary change of consciousness on the part of the American public. In a way, he’s lucky he didn’t win and have to explain to his supporters why his policies were dead on arrival in Washington. Maybe he’d be the one on the verge of declaring a phony national emergency in a desperate effort to keep a core campaign promise. We don’t need 27 candidates competing to outdo each other with a laundry list of progressive reforms that they’ll have no chance of implementing.

If they think they can get these things done with a Democratic House and Senate if they eliminate the legislative filibuster, then they should own that. And they should explain how they’re going to convince the Senate to make the change. It’s not just Republican senators who are opposed to doing away with the filibuster entirely, but also Democrats from every band of the party’s ideological spectrum.

On the left, there are opponents like Mazie Hirono; in the middle, skeptics like Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and on the right, dissenters like Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Maybe enough of them can be convinced to make the change possible, but I highly, highly doubt it.

I think what is more likely to happen, if anything happens at all, is that a new Democratic administration will be stymied in their efforts to do much of anything. They will do what they can through budget reconciliation, just as Obama did to pass health care reform and Trump did to get his tax cuts. And maybe eventually, the Senate Democrats will come around to the conclusion that they have to eliminate the filibuster to address something critical like climate change or gun violence.

It might help if the candidate actually ran on getting rid of the filibuster and explained precisely why this would be a necessary move for implementing their agenda. If they are not willing to advocate for the change then they shouldn’t be making big promises that could never happen without it.

The worst thing to do is to say that you’ll win first and figure this all out later. People are desperately tired of politicians making promises they have no plan to keep.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.