Progressives Would Miss the Filibuster

Richard A. Arenberg and Senator Carl Levin.

op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 3/29/21


Abolition would be shortsighted, but current rules allow obstructionists too much leeway.


Progressives are making a mistake by pushing Senate Democratic leaders to do away with the filibuster. If their agenda is worth fighting for—and it is—it’s worth the inconvenience involved in confronting the threat of the filibuster and forcing the obstructors to stand up and talk for days on the Senate floor.


Some argue that President Biden’s agenda can only be realized if the requirement for a 60-vote supermajority to end debate is eliminated. Actually, the opposite is true. Democrats should force Republicans who are bent on obstruction to state their objections to the president’s policies on the Senate floor. Most of the time, the mere threat of a filibuster is permitted to prevent a vote, but many issues would lack enough senators to sustain a real filibuster. Admittedly, if the number of filibustering senators is large, it may be hard to wear them down physically. But progressive programs are popular, and the way to advance them is by highlighting exactly who is standing in the way of progress. Drawing media attention and building public support increases the pressure on the obstructionists to end their unpopular activity.

Abolishing the filibuster is shortsighted, but reform may well be necessary. Here’s how: First, foreclose senators’ ability to filibuster the procedural motion to bring a bill to the floor by limiting debate to one hour. Second, change the cloture rule for ending debate from three-fifths of all senators (a supermajority of 60 when no seats are vacant) to three-fifths of senators voting. Those senators blocking cloture should be required to do so by being present and voting. Finally, the majority leader should eliminate or curtail the senatorial courtesy known as a “hold,” which is a de facto filibuster. The Democrats’ elimination of the filibuster for judicial nominations in 2013 led to the confirmation by majority vote of three Supreme Court justices and 54 federal appellate judges, appointed to life terms by President Trump. It was a strategic mistake that will reshape the judiciary for decades to come. (One of us, Mr. Levin, cast one of three Democratic “no” votes in 2013.)


If Democrats steamroll the opposition and kill the filibuster unilaterally for legislative debate, the next Republican president with a congressional majority will be free to exploit their shortsightedness. Some Democrats tell themselves this is a small price to pay since small-government conservatives don’t really want to legislate anyway. But in the absence of the filibuster, a Republican president with a conservative congressional majority will have complete control over the federal budget and tax policy.


Conservatives have long sought to weaken Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, federal support for education and a long list of social programs.


Red-state legislatures are previewing what complete Republican control of Congress would bring. Across the country they are tightening election laws, curtailing abortion rights and cutting back on environmental protections.


Mr. Trump enjoyed Republican majorities during his first two years in office and repeatedly demanded an end to the filibuster. How much damage might have been done if the Senate had complied? Recall Mr. Trump’s budget proposal in 2018. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney called it a “vision for the proper role and size of the federal government.” It sought to cut all nondefense discretionary spending by 42.3%, Medicaid by 22.5%, Medicare by 7.1% and food stamps by 27.4%. That bill also sought to make many of the 2017 Trump tax cuts permanent. At the same time, Mr. Trump wanted a $2 billion down payment on his border wall. The Democrats were able to use the filibuster to gain the leverage to negotiate a better omnibus appropriations package.


Two Democratic senators, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, oppose abandoning the legislative filibuster. If they hold firm—and Mr. Manchin was also a “no” in 2013—the filibuster will stay. As recently as four years ago, 33 Democrats joined 28 Republicans in a letter expressing opposition to killing the legislative filibuster.


Squashing the filibuster would create havoc and even more gridlock. Blowing up the rules will exacerbate, not reduce, partisan polarization in the Senate. Standing up to Republican obstructionists and making them actually filibuster is the best way to achieve progressive goals.

Mr. Levin, a Democrat, served as a U.S. senator from Michigan, 1979-2015. Mr. Arenberg is interim director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, a visiting professor at Brown and a co-author of “Defending the Filibuster.”