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Yet, during the 2005-2006 session of Congress, when Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, I regularly heard fellow House GOP members lambast obstructionist Senate Democrats, as they demanded abolition or extreme changes to the Senate filibuster rules. Back then, Democrats — like then-Sen. Joe Biden — opposed eliminating the filibuster, saying it would be “a fundamental power grab by the majority party.”
Fast forward in time, and now it is Democrats who are decrying the filibuster. Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, in a letter to President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, recently wrote, “There is an institutional deference that maybe would have been fine in times past, but a defense of the status quo is inadequate to the challenges of our time. We have to follow the rule of law, but we don’t have to defer to norms and traditions.”
After four years of former President Donald Trump indiscriminately swinging his wrecking ball at all sorts of norms, customs and traditions, I am surprised to hear Democrats make such statements. But, more importantly, I think, as I did when I entered Congress, that eliminating the filibuster — despite its flaws — would be disastrous. The filibuster is the last and best mechanism available to compel some level of bipartisan cooperation to advance meaningful, durable legislation in Congress.
It’s important to note that some of the biggest opponents of the filibuster have been the most radical and extreme voices — not the leaders who strive for moderation. In 2010, the Tea Party’s electoral victories brought an aggressive, merry band of hard-right conservatives to Congress who, with great zeal, further turbocharged the filibuster abolition movement. Those GOP House voices grew even louder and angrier after the 2014 midterm election delivered a Republican majority to the Senate.
In 2016, Trump was elected president and, predictably and in short order, said the Senate should get rid of the filibuster. The GOP had the White House and Congress at the time, so why not use that majority power to deliver a conservative agenda for the American people? Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell drew the scorn of some of his House GOP colleagues for objecting and telling them such a change will not happen because, someday, they would not be in the majority and then they’d lose whatever voice the filibuster had given them.
So, here we are. The GOP is back in the minority in Congress — and if not for the objections of Democratic moderates like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the filibuster would be in grave danger.
But I, like I suspect these moderate Democratic senators, understand the value of the filibuster in shaping better legislation. During my congressional tenure, I witnessed how the filibuster empowered the Senate to engage in bipartisan negotiations to finalize critical budget agreements, spending bills, debt ceiling increases, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) after the 2008 financial crash, Hurricane Sandy disaster relief and other measures essential to the stable functioning of government.
In addition to killing bipartisanship, eliminating the filibuster would increase the likelihood of sweeping, draconian laws being enacted on a purely partisan basis. The filibuster gives the Senate the capacity to check the excesses of the House, since a 60-vote threshold (rather than a simple majority) requires compromise with the other party — even when one party controls both the legislative and executive branch.
If the filibuster is eliminated — and when Republicans regain control of the White House and Congress someday — Democrats should expect attempts by the GOP to strike back. McConnell said as much this week, warning “a completely scorched earth Senate” should the filibuster rules change. He argued, “We wouldn’t just erase every liberal change that hurt the country — we’d strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero, zero input from the other side,” highlighting how the GOP would move to defund Planned Parenthood, take away support from sanctuary cities, etc.
Some Democrats are now arguing that to retain the filibuster is to support a racist rule because Southern segregationists deployed the tactic many decades ago. But it should be noted that both the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law in spite of the Senate filibusters each bill faced.
And, with GOP control of Washington in 2006, the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized with a strong bipartisan vote — a vote that was among my proudest moments in the House of Representatives. In this highly divided Senate, there still may be room for common sense electoral reform that can win over enough moderate Republicans to become law — even if the current piece of legislation, the For the People Act, misses the mark.
In a closed-door House GOP Conference, I periodically gave this speech to my colleagues:
If you want the Senate to be a smaller version of the House, then eliminate the filibuster. The way to do it is to announce your Senate candidacy, raise several millions of dollars, get elected and then, once seated, vote to change the Senate rules. But, until then, stop complaining and let’s get back to business here in the House.
To be clear, the Senate filibuster is an overused, imperfect tool and there is certainly room for improvement. As a former senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, I was frequently annoyed with the Senate’s inability to proceed on appropriations bills. These bills provide critical funding for programs that support the armed forces, medical research, small business, infrastructure, border security, agriculture, housing, education and more. And yet, senators would frequently launch filibusters on motions to proceed on these bills — thus delaying floor debate and final votes. Perhaps, if the Senate were to make a change, it could rewrite the rules so senators would not be able to filibuster until the bill is actually being debated on the floor for final passage?
Without a bipartisan consensus on changes to the filibuster, however, Congress will become even more tragically divided than it already is. And an outright repeal of the filibuster will lead to more partisan legislation that can be overturned by the minority party when it once again gains the majority — adding more fuel to fire the kilns of national hostility, grievance and resentment.
So, before pulling the trigger on the filibuster, Democrats should think hard about future ramifications.
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