Imagine this: after building an unprecedented online coalition in 2016, Bernard Sanders is elected 46th President of the United States. With the 2020 election also came a surprising upset victory in the U.S. Senate: the Republican Majority of 51 was electorally overturned, resulting in a 51:49 Democratic majority rule. Soon after being sworn in, Sanders remains steadfast that he will not change the current Senate filibuster rule — as promised at the beginning of his campaign. Foreseeing the impossibility of passing Medicare For All, with the traditional Senate super-majority of 60 votes, Sanders. attempts to pen a condensed version of Medicare For All into the routine Budget Reconciliation Bill. Knowing he only needs 51 votes to pass this particular bill under current Senate rules, this becomes his only option to pass Medicare For All. After passing with all 51 Democratic Senators voting for it and all 49 Republican Senators voting against it, Sanders does almost exactly what newly elected President Obama did: he passes a landmark healthcare bill under the Senate Budget Reconciliation Process rife with compromises.
What about the rest of Sander’s progressive agenda? Needing a 60 vote majority after the Budget Reconciliation Bill and after having spent a majority of his dwindling political capital in his first, and most potently effective 100 days of office, Sanders and his marginal Senate majority of Democrats are stymied and unsuccessful in passing a $15 minimum wage, expansion of the Estate Tax on billionaires, breaking up big banks with a stock repurchase restriction, introducing tuition-free community college, and a version of The Green New Deal to cut carbon emissions. In other words, all but one of Sander’s campaign promises become unfilled dreams.
Not convinced? How about this. Kamala Harris becomes the first female president of the United States. With a similar projected Senate victory, Harris vows to work for middle class families. With the same projected Senate victory, Harris includes her Livable Incomes for Families Today tax cut into the Senate Reconciliation Bill. It passes with a 51:49 Democratic majority. However, Harris, having vowed not to change the Senate filibuster rule, remains blocked in passing an expansion of Planned Parenthood, a version of The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and a $15 minimum wage.
With this reasoning, Sanders, Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, and Brown have all voiced support for maintaining the current senate filibuster rule. In other words, they remain resolved in maintaining the 60-vote majority to pass major legislation and refuse to take the dreaded “nuclear option,” lowering the voting majority to 51 votes.
Republican Senators need the filibuster to thwart the Democratic agenda. That’s because the Democrat’s agenda is comprehensive and far more detailed than the Republican agenda: Democratic legislators believe in healthcare reform, taxes on the wealthy, family leave, increased minimum wage, and action on climate change. Polling and support of how progressive the Democratic agenda can go has been debatable, as the ongoing existential debate over moderation in the 2020 primary is showing us. However, the Democrats have managed to build a dynamic platform that still is able to attract a wide-reaching spectrum of constituents (when they show up to polls, aren’t unjustly packed or cracked apart in rigged voting districts, or denied access by way of raunchy voting I.D. laws) as the 2018 Midterm election proved. Republican lawmakers, on the other hand, have two objective goals: lower corporate taxes and obstruct public welfare. They’ve been moderately successful thus far in covering their uncreative ideals: they passed their tax cut for wealthy, corporations, and attempted to dismantle The Affordable Care Act. They failed at the latter primarily because public opinion was so strongly against it: the majority’s voice spoke much to the chagrin of GOP corporate interest. Regardless, with the Senate filibuster in place, Republicans have, can, and will prevent Democrats from accomplishing their aims no matter who has the majority in the Senate and who is president.
What is almost inarguable, no matter where on the ideological spectrum you fall, is that the Senate is an obstructionist body. But, what does a consistent rejection of any policy due to a lack of representative majorites represent? According to the American Enterprise Institute, in two decades, 70% of Americans will live in 16 states. What that means is 32 elected Senators will represent 70% of America and 68 Senators will represent the remaining 30% of America.
The principles surrounding majority voting in the Senate have been stretched and worn out to a point where they no longer adequately represent our country. The Senate filibuster, as we understand it today, has evolved from a seldom-used practice that formally brought the entire Senate to a halt, to a semi-permanent state of existence. Until the 1830's, the filibuster was a theoretical entity that was used as a threat. By the turn of the 20th century, the filibuster was seen as a tool of obstruction for a senator to hold the floor and talk as long as they wanted, stopping the legilation process. Strom Thurmond holds the record for a spoken filibuster lasting 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. But that isn’t the only way to obstruct the legislative process. In 1917, amid heated debate over whether the United States should enter World War I, the Senate created the “cloture rule” to provide a mechanism for a supermajority of now 60 senators to cut off the debate and proceed to a final vote. This eventually adapted into a “tracking system,” which allows clotures and filibusters to exist and be tabled for a later time in the Senate without screeching the entire body to a halt. Since the process of legalizing increased civil rights emerged in the 1960’s, the procedural vote to put an end to the obstruction of an endless debate with a pass/fail motion has been executed 10 times as much as it was prior. To be clear, that means the motions for cloture in response to filibusters in the Senate have increased by 1000% since the era of civil rights legislation.
This systematically represents two problems: resistance to adequate representation and, more importantly, denial of minority groups being adequately represented. The reason filibusters and clotures became a standard practice in the 1960’s was thanks to Southern Democratic (who later became Republicans) opposition to increased civil rights. To them, this meant black voters. In the South, this meant a sudden emergence of a new majority who most certainly would not vote for you if you propagated Jim Crow laws.
A Democratic House and a Republican Senate demonstrate a body that is structurally unsound. How does California have 53 lawmakers in the House of Representatives and 2 senators in the Senate, while Wyoming has 1 lawmaker in the House of Representatives and 2 senators in the Senate?
If any of the Democratic nominees for president are lucky enough to be elected, and, if the voters of America mobilize to retake the Senate, they don’t have a lot of time to act on what their party and the country wants. Passing one piece of legislation is good, but it is not enough. History has showed us that a victorious party in a presidential election usually faces backlash in the following midterm. If Democrats were to take the Executive and Legislative branches of government, a GOP victory in the midterm would take away their newfound majority as quickly as they got it. All of their mometum and political capital would have been spent on battling the barricade of an improbable legislative super-majority. So, Democrats would need to act fast. Altering the Senate Filibuster rules is one strategy. However, the structure and standard practice of the body itself must be reconsidered. The Senate’s purpose is not meant to be a body that only says no to the far more demographically diverse majority decisions of the House. It is meant to be a deliberative body. Deliberation is perhaps the most important quality liberalism as an idea embodies.
Yes, changing the foundation of the Senate. is a risky decision. Yes, if Democrats were to inevitably lose a projected majority, this would create chaos under Republican control. However, the consequences of enacting as many of these policies as possible are too dire to allow bureaucracy to mitigate and stall progress. By catching, stopping, and redirecting use of the word “nuclear” and replacing it with “adequate representation of public opinion,” a Democratic majority can enact progressive policy with large bodies of support of the American people behind it. Under a political system unrestrained by the current status quo of curruption by way of Citizen’s United and Republican gerrymandering, Democrats could have an unprecedented electoral advantage they haven’t experienced since Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964.
In terms of policy proposals, the only 2020 candidates who have talked unequivocally about the inadequacy of the filibuster rule and remodeling the senate are Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. Regarding changing the current rules, Warren has stated that “all options are on the table.” I hope this might mean that states like California, New York, and Illinois can be given 4 to 5 senators instead of 2 and super majority rules can be reassessed. We need courage to speak to this impasse that exposes the Senate’s inability to lead with poise. Public consciousness is shifting, as Republican hypocrisy in the Senate continues, we’re beginning to see a shift in Democratic attitudes towards the Senate. Candidates, senators, former senators, and political commentators alike, are beginning to see the Senate’s lack of proactive function. Leadership in defensive action and creativity in reformation is needed in this ongoing exceptional time. Another 4 years of the status quo is something we cannot afford: this country and this planet do not have time for moderation.