Gary Lerude

March 14, 2021

Is the Filibuster Undermining Democracy?

President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill Thursday, making it law and releasing a flood of federal funding. The legislation passed solely with the votes of Democrats — no Republican support in either the House or Senate.

Before being sworn in as president, Biden said he wanted the measure to be bipartisan, causing a group of Republican Senators to counter the $1.9 trillion proposal with $600 billion in relief. Following a meeting with the group, the president and Congressional Democrats decided to stick to their original plan, at a cost more than three times the amount proposed by the Republicans. No doubt the decision not to negotiate reflected extensive calculus, including the belief that the compromise stimulus package addressing the 2008 Great Recession proved to be too small.

Although the Democrats did not negotiate with the Republicans, the House version of the relief bill was modified before reaching the president's desk: the Senate Parliamentarian ruled a $15 per hour minimum wage couldn't be included in a budget reconciliation bill, and several centrist Democrats in the Senate wouldn't support the measure unless the income eligibility for direct payments and the amount and length of unemployment benefits were reduced.

Unable to stop the bill, Republicans have complained about the "bloated and unaffordable" elements of the legislation and labeled Biden's initial call for unity disingenuous and hypocritical, arguing if he really wanted unity, he would have negotiated.

Which brings me to the point of this essay:

Had President Biden and the Democrats tried to reach a compromise with the Republicans, would they have been able to conclude a deal, even one at the Republican's $600 billion proposal? Given the tone and actions of the Republican party since becoming the majority in the House in 2011 and the Senate in 2015; their reluctant acceptance, if not denial, of the 2020 election; and continuing fealty to former president Trump and his base of voters, I doubt President Biden could have won broad Republican support for even a $600 million package.

Senator McConnell, now the leader of the minority party, would likely have resisted working across the aisle, using his power to derail any legislation. We saw McConnell delay the second relief package until after the presidential election, more than six months after the HEROS Act passed in the House. This is the man who blocked Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, from having a hearing, arguing the next president should be allowed to choose the justice to fill the vacancy. Yet, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died shortly before the 2020 election, he changed his philosophy and expedited Justice Amy Coney Barrett's nomination through the Senate. In my view, McConnell serves no principle other than power, which strips him of honor and integrity and any trust. He's just been reelected to a six-year term so has the security of time to play whatever pro-Republican strategy he wants.

Given the political climate in Washington, Senate Republicans will likely follow McConnell's lead, with only a few Senators willing to follow principle when it deviates from Republican orthodoxy — and likely not often. The result: what legislation passes the Senate, if any, will be very modest. Important issues such as civil rights, voting rights, election finance reform, climate change, taxes, and infrastructure will not be addressed, as they won't muster 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster.

Should democracy require 60 votes to pass legislation? The potential tyranny of the majority has become the real tyranny of the minority, as the Republicans have a chokehold on Congress for at least the next two years. Senators can simply threaten a filibuster to effectively kill a bill.

I think It's time to eliminate the filibuster on legislation or at least revert to the original version, which required a Senator to orate to hold up a vote, which has a natural time limit. Heather Cox Richardson has written a compelling argument that not reforming the filibuster could give Republicans a lock on our federal government. Then they won't need an insurrection.