Tuesday Talk*: Filibuster Whiplash

The sky is falling, today’s version, is brought to you by Joe Manchin, Democrat from West Virginia, who betrayed his party by refusing to support the elimination of the filibuster. Some may see Manchin as the only adult in the Senate. Others may not.

Still others contend that Manchin is living in fantasyland, where the Republicans are untrustworthy scum willing to do anything to stymie the Democratic agenda of Utopia and he’s playing right into their hands.

Manchin’s decision is a catastrophe not just for this particular bill, though he has almost certainly doomed the legislation. A senior administration official told me Monday that “none of this is a surprise to those who have heard Manchin’s views” and that the White House will continue working to “make progress notwithstanding the difficult challenges in front of us, including a 50-vote Senate.” But thanks to Manchin’s decision, Biden doesn’t even have a 50-vote Senate for what many Democrats see as an existential fight against the GOP’s attempt to gain and keep power through voter suppression. The 49 Senate votes left after Manchin’s defection will take Biden and the Democrats precisely nowhere.

There is certainly a practical point here, that his colleagues across the aisle haven’t exactly been open to compromise and putting country above party either, with some exception in some circumstances. But then, somebody has to be willing to  be the grown up in the room, and the whisper is that Manchin has the support of some Dems who share his misgivings about the wisdom of some of these progressive reimaginations put forth by Biden, but are just as happy to let Manchin take the heat.

But even if Manchin gave the Dems that needed 50th vote to bring the Senate to a tie to be broken by someone with experience breaking things, Kamala Harris, the Reps would still have the Senate trick of the filibuster. Whether it’s too easily and painlessly invoked is one question. Whether it should exist at all is another.

The rule of thumb is simple:

The party holding the majority: The filibuster is bad.

The party in the minority: The filibuster is good.

How do we know this with absolute certainty?

When the Senate voted in January 2011 on what was then considered an outlandish proposal to allow a simple majority of senators to break filibusters, only a dozen Democrats backed the plan, which went down in a flamingly lopsided vote.

A decade on, the vast majority of Senate Democrats have come around to the view that the filibuster rules — which require a supermajority of 60 votes to bring legislation to a final vote — are antiquated and unworkable, and have become the primary obstacle to meaningful policy changes that enjoy broad support.

What changed between 2011 and 2021? The head on the corpse.

The arguments for and against the filibuster are well known to both parties, as both have made the argument when it’s in their self interest. When a party controls the House, Senate and presidency, they can enact any law they please without a filibuster. Ordinarily, the limiting factor would be public support, so if they do something too radical, they will be voted out for their craziness. But given the current state of political polarization, and general disinterest in the nuts and bolts of laws and the media’s dedicated interest in spinning laws to reflect “moral clarity,” the Dems feel little constraint.

The filibuster serves to blunt the tyranny of the majority, that a simple majority of senators can enact change that essentially half the country finds unacceptable, maybe even abhorrent, and thus limits radical change to that which can muster some level of support from across the aisle. But the same polarization makes reasonable support for change essentially impossible. The Reps aren’t all that willing to compromise for the sake of the nation either, Senator Tim Scott notwithstanding.

So good or evil, is it time for the filibuster to go? Is the aspiration that senators of intelligence and good will can put the interests of our nation ahead of their petty political interests so archaic that the dream of bipartisanship is a fantasy? If so, and nothing short of a party holding a sufficient majority in the Senate will be enough to get change enacted, does the filibuster stifle the will of the majority or protect the minority from radical change?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

32 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Filibuster Whiplash

  1. MollyG

    Manchin says that he is against a partisan bill to protect voting rights. However across the country the Rs are passing partisan bills to curb voting rights. He has yet to explain why the first is wrong and the second is ok.

    1. SHG Post author

      Manchin supports the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, but not the For The People Act (H.R. 1).

      1. Willboyd

        Do you disagree that the John Lewis VRA is an attempt to reverse the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder so as to give the political allies of Democrats control over state election rules? Section 5 of the 1965 VRA was treasured by the left because they could easily refuse to preclear any voting change opposed by the Left — such as voter-ID laws — without having to go to court with a Section 2 lawsuit, where they would have to prove that a law was discriminatory.

    2. Paleo

      He hasn’t explained that because he doesn’t think the second is ok.

      And apparently he’s not the only Dem opposed to HR 1 as it currently exists. So even if the filibuster were dropped this bill wouldn’t pass anyway.

  2. Quinn Martindale

    What changed between 2011 and 2021 is a decade’s experience showing that the unified Republican opposition to Obama wasn’t a one-off event, but a political shift to ideologically aligned parties. Manchin’s preferred alternative, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Alternative, has exactly one Republican supporter and almost certainly won’t get 10. When the Republicans talked about killing the filibuster under Bush, it was stopped by the gang of 14 that agreed to oppose the nuclear option but also to oppose most filibusters. Those moderates are almost all gone, and the choice is now between unilateral action and gridlock. There have only been 15 bills signed into me this session – all of them have either had majority Republican support or no Republican support. There simply isn’t a group of moderate Republicans to compromise with to get 10-20 votes to pass cloture. Our system of checks and balances was built before any notion of a filibuster, and there would still be plenty of safeguards once we move past it.

    1. Will J. Richardson

      Re: “Our system of checks and balances was built before any notion of a filibuster, and there would still be plenty of safeguards once we move past it.”

      That turns out not to be the case. The original system of checks and balances established by the Constitution was profoundly weakened by the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The filibuster is the last check on the “tyranny of the majority” that the drafters of the Constitution so feared.

    2. Richard Parker

      The passage of fewer laws is a plus, not a bug. Most of the time Congress has no idea what it is doing.

  3. Howl

    To get business into tangles
    We can guarantee more angles
    Than the town of Boston guarantees in beans!
    If you think you’ve got depression,
    Wait until we get in session,
    And you’ll find out what depression really means!
    Ha! Ha! Ha!

  4. Richard Kopf

    I have some difficulty taking advice from a former anchor for ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” Jemele Hill, on matters related to how the Senate should function. But I suppose that’s ’cause I’m an old white dude.

    1. SHG Post author

      Putting her sordid work history aside, what are the chances that her incisive critique will finally persuade Manchin to toe the party line? How could calling him a “cowardly, power-hungry white dude” not compel his capitulation?

  5. Hunting Guy

    H. L. Mencken.

    “ The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

  6. B. McLeod

    I’m not really seeing how any of the alleged “voter suppression” is going to stop a qualified voter who is intent on voting. If it doesn’t mean enough to a person to haul his or her ass out of bed to go spend 15 minutes at the polling place, maybe the problem isn’t the election laws.

    1. Guitardave

      Amen, Brother Bruce. The whole issue is a fabricated, steaming pile of horseshit.
      I made about $60 last November hauling some of my Amish neighbors to the polling place.
      There was a line around the building…about 45+ minutes to get it done.
      These folks don’t have cars. Think about that.

    2. Marginal Voter

      And thinking about it a different way, we had millions of new voters this year and a record turnout, primarily because voting became much easier. The conventional wisdom is this is a great thing, but what value does their input really bring to the table? Were there millions of Americans who were too distracted reading the Federalist and Notes on the State of Virginia that they forgot to vote? Are these marginal voters (in the economic sense) really producing a better outcome? If someone is so detached from the political world that they need to have a ballot mailed directly to them unprompted, how valuable is their vote?

  7. Noel Erinjeri

    Here’s a modest proposal: keep the filibuster, but it has to actually BE a filibuster. Meaning the party declaring it actually has to do the work of standing in the well of the Senate, 24/7, to stall the legislation.

    Right now, declaring a filibuster is like Michael Scott declaring bankruptcy…except it works.


      1. Noel Erinjeri

        They say great minds think alike. And as a fellow great mind, you think I got time to click every link that happens across my screen? This is my “As If!” face.

  8. Elpey P.

    The naked power grab is blatant, and we now have so many examples of how they don’t even care about how long they can plausibly maintain the phony charade. Next year it will be ancient history as they and the media-managed public are on to the next establishment follies. State-sanctioned political parties are a bigger impediment to progress than the filibuster.

    How about they excommunicate this guy from their party? That’ll show him.

    1. Charles

      Abolishing the filibuster is asking every Senator to give up power that they currently possess, not a “power grab,” though I’ll admit that calling it a “blatant power-hold-on-to” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

      1. Rengit

        This would be a meaningful criticism if every Senator was an unattached free agent and didn’t rely on political parties for campaigning, but since they aren’t and rather are necessarily aligned with a political party (or, in the case of Senators Sanders and King, a caucus), the filibuster functions as a collective tool for the minority to preserve its say in building democratic consensus.

        Given that the filibuster can be ended by invoking cloture with 60 votes, treating the filibuster as the individual right of a Senator, as if a filibuster by one or a mere handful of Senators would substantively mean anything, rather than a collective power of the Senate minority amounts to sophistry and obfuscation.

      2. Elpey P.

        As if the power dynamic at issue here is Senator vs. Senator instead of party vs. party. Give them a slim minority and suddenly they will start re-valuing the power they want to trade off. But right now there’s a window of opportunity for short term gains and screw the long term market.

        1. Bryan Burroughs

          Which basically describes what the Dems did the last time they had a slim majority, and they played right into Mitch McConnell’s hands. Like, damn, learn something from history, ok? It wasn’t even 20 damn years ago, folks

  9. L. Phillips

    Given the toxic combination of arrogance, stupidity and mendacity that emanates from our august legislative bodies, a non-violent mechanism that gums up the “progress” of same seems a blessing rather than a curse.

  10. SJW3

    Politicians and the talking heads in the media seem to believe acrimony in the political sphere is a new invention.
    The Federalist papers were mainly published anonymously to remove party slants from the perception of them.

    The filibuster is a good idea, no matter which party is in or out of power.

  11. Curtis

    If the filibuster disappeared, the parties could actually do things and that is very scary for the extremists in both parties. With great power comes great responsibility. If a party actually had power, they would either have to tone down their rhetoric or face a backlash for passing unpopular laws. Without great power comes great opportunities for kabuki theater and fund raising.

    With the filibuster, the Democrat activists get to promote their pet idiocies and rail against the evil Republican without any worry of actually passing controversial bills. The Republicans activists get to rage against the progressives who will ruin the country. It’s a win-win for those who value their own power over the country’s well being.

    1. SHG Post author

      The interesting thing about being able to indulge in radical experiments is that most experiments fail. Miserably.

  12. Skink

    If only it was “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” If only it was principled. If only.

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