Opinion | Bust the filibuster


Ronen Tivony/SIPA USA/TNS

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at a campaign rally in Glendale, California, on Feb. 18. Warren is running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president.

By Devi Ruia, For The Pitt News

The Senate filibuster isn’t exactly the top issue of the 2020 presidential election. But while it may not be talked about as much as climate change, health care or gun violence, it could be the key to passing legislation regarding these issues.

Abolishing the filibuster is integral to passing important legislation as we move forward. The Senate filibuster refers to the Senate rule — cloture — that debate on a bill cannot be moved to vote unless three-fifths of the senators vote to close the debate.

This makes it extremely difficult for our partisan government to accomplish things, creating more gridlock in a government that has already ground to a halt multiple times, as evidenced by the three government shutdowns in the past two years. Abolishing the filibuster is the best way to get rid of a major roadblock towards passing meaningful Democratic legislation, and it is something 2020 Democratic presidential candidates should be willing to add to their 2020 platforms.

When the Senate is as polarized as it is today, with 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats, it’s hard to reach the 60-vote threshold in order to pass legislation. This is something that has repeatedly frustrated Republican President Donald Trump, who tweeted in July 2017, “The very outdated filibuster rule must go.”

Trump is correct in stating that the Senate filibuster is an outdated rule, and it’s not even one that can be found in the Constitution. The voting threshold requirement to end debate on legislation was added to the Senate rules in 1917, but at the time it required a two-thirds majority vote to close debate. This rule was changed in 1975 to require the three-fifths majority that we see today because it was too difficult to obtain the two-thirds vote. Unfortunately, it is still rather difficult to obtain the three-fifths majority vote.

Although abolishing the filibuster and moving to simply require a majority of the Senate to vote to end debate on a bill would help the Republican party — the current majority party in the Senate — it does not seem inclined to do so.

“I’ve long said that eliminating the legislative filibuster would be a mistake,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, tweeted in December. “It’s what’s prevented our country for decades from sliding toward liberalism.”

This quote is fairly telling of where Republican leadership stands when it comes to abolishing the filibuster. Though it might be beneficial to them currently to get rid of it, if they lose the majority, they know liberals would be able to use it to their advantage to pass legislation, and Republicans refuse to allow Democrats to have this power.

So one would think that the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates would be on board to abolish the Senate filibuster. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“We should not be doing anything to mess with the strength of the filibuster,” presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said in an interview in January.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., another presidential candidate, seems to be in agreement. After announcing his presidential candidacy, Sanders said in an interview with CBS News he’s “not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster.”

Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., both presidential candidates, seem to be on the fence about what they want to do regarding the filibuster. Harris said at an Iowa Town Hall that she was “conflicted” and Gillibrand stated in an interview she was still “weigh[ing] all the pros and the cons.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., seems to be the candidate most inclined toward abolishing the filibuster. Warren remarked in February on political podcast Pod Save America to former National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor, “If the Republicans are going to try to block us on key pieces that we’re trying to move forward, then you better believe we’ve got to keep all the options on the table.”

Their hesitancy is somewhat understandable. All five of the candidates are currently serving in the Senate, and therefore have experienced some of the problems that the abolishment of the 60-vote threshold has caused in confirmation votes. When the Democrats held the majority in the Senate in 2013, they changed the rules so that a basic 51-vote majority could confirm lower court and cabinet appointments due to heavy Republican obstruction of then-President Barack Obama’s appointments. When the Republicans held the majority in 2017, they changed the rules so the simple vote majority would extend to Supreme Court justices.

Without this rule change, the contentious appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court may not have happened, as he was confirmed in a narrow 50-48 vote, with two senators abstaining from the vote.

“Having just lived through being in the minority and how destructive the 51-vote threshold has been for Supreme Court justices, I just want to think long and hard about it,” Gillibrand said in an interview.

Democrats may also be concerned about the long-term consequences of abolishing the filibuster, which could possibly lead to Republicans reversing Democratic legislation when they regain the Senate majority. However, if Democrats are truly confident that their legislative agenda is the best choice for the American people, that is not something that should hold them back. The Republican-majority Senate voted three times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a Democratic health-care bill that has been heavily criticized by Republican leadership. They couldn’t even reach the 50 votes needed to repeal the ACA any of those three times.

Although it’s understandable to have reservations about abolishing the filibuster, it is likely a necessity if any of these Democratic presidential candidates hope to pass their legislative agendas. Democrats have a decent chance of winning the Senate majority in 2020, according to political think tank The Brookings Institution. However, if they are able to do so, it will certainly not be by a large enough margin for them to bypass the Senate filibuster.

As a result, Senate Republicans will still be able to block most liberal legislation that Democratic candidates have talked about, like increasing taxes on the wealthy, family leave, voting rights reform, climate change action and health-care reform.

In addition, past elections have shown us that midterm elections will take the majority away in Congress from the party of the President. Therefore, a Democratic president may only have two years to accomplish any wide-sweeping legislative goals. This is a small amount of time in which Republican senators and the filibuster could actively impede the passing of their legislative agenda. Democratic candidates must at least be willing to abolish the Senate filibuster in order for them to have hope of passing the legislation they have promised.

You can’t pass any version of Medicare for All or the Green New Deal unless you’re willing to kill the filibuster,” tweeted Jon Favreau, Pod Save America co-host and former director of speechwriting for Obama. “If you’re not willing to kill it, that’s fine, but then you shouldn’t pretend you’re going to pass these proposals. Be honest with voters.”

Democratic presidential candidates should be willing to get rid of the Senate filibuster or be honest with voters. We as voters must make this an important issue in the 2020 Democratic primary in order to choose the candidate who has the best chance of passing the Democratic legislative agenda.