Fellow Washington Monthly writer Bill Scher has argued passionately that the filibuster isn’t so bad: the argument goes that bipartisanship is a worthy goal, that it will lead to more universally accepted outcomes, and that achieving legislative results is good for Republican legislators, too.
The outcome of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump should give even the most ardent filibuster defenders some pause, however.
Barely over a month after Donald Trump sent an insurrectionist, murderous mob that came within minutes of killing or kidnapping them and the Republican Vice President, only seven Republican Senators had the courage to stand up to their party’s Trumpist base and convict Trump of incitement. Not eight, or nine, or ten. Seven. And even at that, two of them (Senators Burr and Cassidy) seemed to have made up their minds only at the last minute. A full forty-five of them–including Burr and Cassidy themselves–stood behind the widely discredited fig leaf that the trial itself was unconstitutional.
We don’t even need to delve into the deep history of the filibuster’s damaging impacts on civil rights and other causes here. It has been used far more often to prevent progress than to stop negative outcomes, partly because Republicans typically lack the courage to do things their constituents would notice and despise, like eliminating Social Security or Medicare. On the other hand, every anti-majoritarian choke point in our system helps reactionary forces maintain a status quo of unjust and unsustainable outcomes.
As Senate representation becomes ever more comically skewed toward sparsely populated states dominated by rural white conservatives, the likelihood of getting 60 senators on board for even halfway progressive legislation becomes vanishingly small.
Defenses of the filibuster rely on two main ideas—both of which are easily refuted. First is the notion that “compromise” in the abstract will lead to better outcomes at either a political or a policy level. There is no reason to believe this is true. Insofar as voters even notice policy outcomes and can attribute them to the correct political parties and actors, almost no one cares about how bipartisan the final vote was. Nor do conservative adjustments liberal bills make them better at a policy level. Weaker stimulus bills are worse in every way than stronger ones; carveouts for big business are bad; weakening protections and fundamental rights is harmful. The long effort to make the Affordable Care Act a bipartisan bill was not only politically destructive to its support, but it also made the final product intrinsically worse.
The second is the notion that Republicans themselves will benefit from passing bipartisan bills. On issues from gun control to healthcare to abortion to voter rights, Republicans tend to oppose progressive legislation that is overwhelmingly popular even among Republicans in their own states. They do this in part because there is little media attention to their votes and a great deal of confusion about the legislative process. They can, for instance, vote for popular amendments on a bill but against cloture on the same bill, giving themselves cover on the issue at hand while pleasing their donors and conservative activist groups. But more importantly, the hyperpartisanship of likely voters dovetailing with America’s all-encompassing culture wars means that Republican legislators will get more credit for standing against whatever the majority of Democrats were for, than flak for opposing a nominally popular policy outcome.
At the end the day, most Republican Senators are both part of the Trumpist base and terrified of it to boot. Even after Trump sent a mob to intimidate and physically harm them, not even ten could be found to bar him from running for president again. They will be even less likely to help Democrats pass bills that help the very people Republicans are trying to disenfranchise.
Which makes it all the more perplexing that two of the Democratic Senators whose lives were in grave danger on January 6th—Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona—are insistent on keeping the filibuster in place. The filibuster will not help Joe Manchin deliver better outcomes for the people of West Virginia. It will not help make Kyrsten Sinema’s bills more politically palatable to swing Arizona voters.
If Manchin and Sinema want to keep their promise to preserve the filibuster, then at the least they could support tweaks to the rule that would make it less onerous. But even they should be able to see that the same Republicans who voted to acquit the very man who sent a mob to terrorize them won’t compromise with them on bills for their constituents.