One of the very few things in today’s political environment that is abundantly clear is the critical need to pass election reform. We need federal legislation to outlaw gerrymandering and a variety of vote suppression tactics, to make it easier rather than more difficult to vote, and to restore trust in the maxim “one person, one vote.”
The only impediment to that critical necessity is the continued existence of the current form of the filibuster, which has made a mockery of majority rule. As everyone reading this blog knows, the way in which the filibuster now works requires any measure to be passed by super-majority. Wedded to Republican nihilism, It has brought the business of government to a standstill.
As a recent article from The Brookings Institute noted, the Senate’s ability to pass pending voting rights legislation–which is favored by large majorities of Americans and even by majorities in both houses of Congress–is the filibuster.
I have previously shared the filibuster’s relevant history, but let me repeat it.
Originally, the use of the filibuster was based on a recognition that so long as a senator kept talking, the bill in question couldn’t move forward. Once those opposed to the measure felt they had made their case (or at least exhausted their argument,) they would leave the Senate floor and allow a vote. The first change came In 1917, when filibustering Senators threatened President Wilson’s ability to respond to a perceived military threat. The Senate responded by adopting a mechanism called cloture, allowing a super-majority vote to end a filibuster.
In 1975, the Senate again changed the rules; this time, the change made it much, much easier to filibuster.
The new rules allowed other business to be conducted during the time a filibuster is (theoretically) taking place. Senators no longer are required to take to the Senate floor and publicly argue their case. This “virtual” use has increased dramatically as partisan polarization has worsened, and it has effectively abolished the principle of majority rule. It now takes the sixty votes needed for cloture to pass any legislation. This anti-democratic result isn’t just in direct conflict with the intent of the Founders, it has brought normal government operation to a standstill.
Meanwhile, the lack of any requirement to publicly debate the matter keeps Americans from hearing and evaluating the rationale for opposition to a measure–or even understanding why nothing is getting done.
With Senators like Manchin (aka McConnell’s favorite Democrat) defending the filibuster, eliminating it is probably not an option. But even Manchin has displayed an openness to revising it. In the Brookings article linked above, the authors share a number of proposals for amending the process, and consider the pros and cons of each. They look at a variety of ideas: reducing the number of senators needed to open debate in the face of a filibuster; requiring the objectors to be present with one of their number speaking at all times during a filibuster; and shifting the burden to those mounting the filibuster–making them muster the votes required to maintain the filibuster whenever it’s challenged, instead of enlisting the 60 who wish to proceed to so vote.
Whatever the merits of these proposals–and I definitely like the one requiring these obstructionists to stay on the Senate floor and bluster throughout–I especially like the paper’s final suggestion–to carve out an exception for voting rights, modeled on the exception that already exists for fiscal measures:
In Part III, we advocate for one additional option that the authors have previously written about, and that has been getting some significant proponents of late. We term that approach “democracy reconciliation.” It is based upon the existing practice of budget reconciliation, which allows certain fiscal measures to have an up-or-down simple majority vote. As we explain, we would craft a similar exception for voting measures, allowing them a similar opportunity to be voted upon by a majority. Reconciliation operates on a key principle known as the Byrd Rule, named after the late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. Because the current fate of the filibuster swirls around his successor, Senator Manchin, one may refer to this hoped-for new compromise of democracy reconciliation as “the Byrd-Manchin” Rule.
Name it anything–just get it done. Quickly.