During Thursday’s press conference unveiling the Green New Deal, Sen. Ed Markey was asked by the New Yorker’s Osita Nwanevu if, should the situation arise, the Democrats should eliminate the filibuster in order to get the bill through the Senate. Markey’s response was that he expects the bill to pass with 60 votes and Republican support.
Markey later backtracked a bit and said that other legislative options, including budget reconciliation, were on the table. But his initial hesitancy to suggest getting rid of the most archaic and anti-democratic tool in the most archaic and anti-democratic legislative body in America says a lot about how institutionally conservative the Senate makes those who serve in it.
The filibuster is a legislative maneuver used in the Senate to effectively shut down debate, by allowing a senator or group of them to speak for however long they want. As Brookings fellow Sarah Binder explained in a Senate hearing in 2010, it was effectively created by mistake in the early 19th century, but because of that mistake, 60 votes are needed to cut off debate rather than a simple majority.
In recent years, it’s been wielded much more often, meaning the business of the Senate can grind to a halt every time a remotely contentious piece of legislation comes up—or, knowing that, the majority party just won’t bring it up for a vote at all. It’s on its last legs as it is; in 2013, the Democratic-led Senate got rid of the filibuster for most judicial and executive branch nominations, and in 2017, the Republicans killed it for Supreme Court confirmation votes.
The filibuster is, and always has been, a key enemy to progress in America. Both the filibuster and the mere threat of the filibuster have been used to oppose civil rights, Obamacare, a public option, the DREAM Act, cap and trade, card check, a hike on the minimum wage, even the most moderate gun control measure, and so on. Jesse Helms filibustered making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. The Senate only passed an anti-lynching bill for the first time in December 2018; the reason it took so long is, you guessed it, the filibuster.
Moreover, the filibuster no longer exists for the kinds of situations in which it would have been most useful for Democrats to keep it—like the Supreme Court nomination of accused sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh, or any of President Donald Trump’s grifter cabinet appointees. As it stands, it is a gift to the right and little else. (There is a reason that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t give the most useful weapon conservatives have away even to enact President Donald Trump’s biggest campaign promise.)
But being elected to the Senate appears to do something to your brain to make you prioritize being in a club of a hundred powerful people over, you know, actually doing anything. “The Senate is the Senate. I served in the House, I don’t want to serve in the House again,” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the chamber, told the Hill on Friday, in a nice little illustration of his primary concern as an elected official. “There comes a time when the Senate has a responsibility to protect the minority.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, told the Hill he would “never” eliminate the filibuster, adding, “It’s a function of our presence of the Senate basically trying to bring this country together and keep it together.”
But even many potential allies in the fight for, say, healthcare for everyone, or an aggressive plan to deal with climate change, have no love for the idea of getting rid of the most reactionary legislative tool in America in order to make those things happen. Even after witnessing what the filibuster did to former President Barack Obama’s somewhat ambitious agenda in the first two years of his presidency, when he and the Democrats had the closest thing to a mandate that any president has had since Reagan, some Democrats running in 2020 still aren’t convinced that it needs to go.
“My colleagues and I, everybody I’ve talked to, believe the legislative filibuster should stay there,” Sen. Cory Booker said recently. Last month, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told Pod Save America that falling short of 60 votes “just means you haven’t done enough advocacy and you need to work a lot harder.”
Taking her comment at face value and assuming she doesn’t mean that anti-lynching activists in the 1930s needed to do more “advocacy”: Work harder how, exactly? To win over Republicans who are ideologically opposed to the interests of workers and universal healthcare and climate action and public education and a functioning government that does anything other than sign defense contracts with Lockheed Martin and build walls?
Gillibrand’s take on this, as well as Markey’s comment that any Green New Deal bill would meet the 60 vote threshold—or win any kind of Republican support—is far more idealistic than any idea in the plan itself. When it comes to climate change action, it doesn’t matter if the final bill put to Congress is an ambitious plan like the one proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Markey or one that focuses more on the “market-based solutions” preferred by more conservative Democrats. Unless there’s a resurgence of actual moderates in the Republican Party between now and the next time that the Democrats have the ability to pass legislation like this—which is not looking very likely considering the way things are now—it will die as a result of the filibuster. Considering Joe “I’ll take dead aim at cap and trade” Manchin is in the Senate for another six years at least, it might not even be Republicans that sign the death warrant. And let’s be clear: more climate change means more people dying. Those are the stakes.
If you accept the premise that we are facing environmental catastrophe if we don’t act, or that fewer people should die because they don’t have healthcare, or in any item of the progressive or even liberal agenda, there is no other choice but to abolish the filibuster. We have to kill it or it will kill us.