When we think about threats to American democracy, we often conjure images of tanks in the streets, the delegitimization of our elections and the enduring scourge of bigotry. What we don’t usually call to mind is an arcane piece of Senate procedure. But the filibuster needs to be eliminated in order for the United States to have a functioning democracy. Issues like D.C. statehood and action on climate change need to be addressed, and allowing the filibuster to stand in the way of action is harmful.
While filibusters are usually portrayed in the media as individual senators holding the floor for hours on end to stall votes, this is in reality one small part of what the filibuster entails. At its most basic level, the filibuster rule requires 60 votes for major legislation to pass in the Senate, as opposed to a simple majority. Since major bills about pressing issues are unlikely to achieve bipartisan support, and since neither party currently holds 60 seats, the rule has the effect of blocking most big legislative action. Action on policies urgent to protecting democracy – like D.C. statehood and voting rights – therefore often stops dead in its tracks on the Senate floor.
Calls to end the filibuster are not new, but the idea has begun to gain steam as the country faces the COVID-19 pandemic, anger over racial injustice and worsening cracks in the American democratic process. Former President Barack Obama is the most notable recent convert to the cause – recently backing calls to eliminate the filibuster as a means to combat racial injustice, citing D.C. statehood as an example. Even if Democrats – who are largely pro-statehood – retake the Senate this fall, it is exceedingly unlikely that they will command a 60-vote supermajority. Republicans have already signaled fierce opposition to statehood, so any vote on the issue would almost certainly fall along party lines. A handful of Republicans would, as a result, have the power to single-handedly block a bill granting representation to 700,000 American citizens. That is not how democracy is supposed to function, and people suffer because of it.
Those who want to keep the filibuster often reminisce about a halcyon era of compromise, gentility and bipartisan cooperation in the Senate. To be fair, it is true that bipartisanship has declined in recent years. But even half a century ago, segregationist senators put up a fight against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 using the filibuster, delaying for weeks legislation that would give basic rights to Black Americans. And even if we ignore the filibuster’s dark past, the political polarization of the present still makes a strong case for its elimination. No modern party is likely to reach a 60-vote majority on its own, and banking on senators crossing the aisle to support hot-button issues is a fool’s errand.
The power that the minority of senators can wield over the legislative process is even more garish when you consider that the Senate is under-representative of the American population. The 21 least-populous states – which between them elect 41 senators, enough to sink any bill because of the filibuster – represent only 11 percent of the U.S. population. Any legislative procedure that would allow such a slim minority of the electorate to block the will of the vast majority has no place in a modern democracy.
Momentum for the filibuster’s abolition may finally be growing – Obama’s call to eliminate it took place when he was publicly eulogizing civil rights hero John Lewis, lending huge credence to the filibuster’s opponents. Groups that promote statehood for D.C., such as 51 for 51, have laid out how the next Democratic Senate majority could do away with the filibuster with only 51 votes. Prominent national Democrats seem to be hearing these calls, and some who were initially hesitant to abolish the filibuster have warmed to the idea. Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-Ny., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have all signaled newfound openness to changing the rule, provided the party wins the Senate and the White House. This is a step that must be taken.
At a time of national upheaval over racial injustice, a cascading climate crisis and historic malaise about the direction the country is headed, obstacles to basic legislative function are obstacles to progress. The filibuster – a tool of segregationists, obstructionists and cynics – is a chief offender. It is long past time for its elimination.
Andrew Sugrue, a junior majoring in political communication, is the contributing opinions editor.