Op-ed: Getting rid of the filibuster would worsen the partisan divide

Garret Hoff, a senior majoring in political communication, is a co-host of the upcoming WRGW show “On the Ballot” and a former secretary of the GW College Republicans.

After witnessing the third presidential impeachment in American history, nationwide protests over systemic racism and the continual struggle to combat COVID-19, it is natural to feel like things need to change. But that does not mean we should destroy the filibuster, an institution that forces our political leaders to collaborate. In fact, they are the exact opposite of the changes that need to be made: changes that force public officials to focus on their duties as servants of all as opposed to their partisan loyalties.

The filibuster, a rule that requires 60 votes to pass major legislation in the Senate as opposed to the narrowest possible majority, should be thought of as a fundamental institution of American democracy. As with the separation of powers and federalism, it can ensure greater participation in the governing process. The rule essentially requires bills to be supported by senators from both parties, as no party has held 60 Senate seats since 1979. In this time of remarkable polarization, this institution is more important than ever as it protects Americans from one party acting unilaterally in governing America.

One of the most heated political controversies in recent memory was Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. A key factor stoking the divisiveness was that without the judicial filibuster, the Senate majority did not need to consider other opinions because confirmation only required their majority – 50 votes – to hold strong. A controversial choice like Kavanaugh likely would have failed if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., needed the support of 10 Democrats. The destruction of the filibuster would result in the ability for the majority to ram legislation on any issue down the throats of Americans with no recourse for the minority to stop it, as we saw with Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

As tempting as it may be to blame governmental inaction on a wide variety of issues, including D.C.’s current lack of statehood on something as straightforward as the legislative filibuster, the real culprit is a poisonous national political culture that has made the unglamorous but necessary work of governing a near impossibility. It should not be easier to throw out a centuries-old legislative practice than to get a fraction of the other party to agree to a compromise. The terrifying fact of the matter is that getting rid of the filibuster will actively worsen this dynamic.

The devastating consequences of removing the filibuster have been well acknowledged by political leaders. Former President Barack Obama said as a senator in 2005 that the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will “only get worse” if the filibuster is removed. As dysfunctional as our government currently is, destroying the filibuster will only increase dysfunction by escalating partisan conflict and further decreasing the influence of individual senators. When party leaders are no longer required to engage with members from the opposing party – as in the House – they can focus more on, as Rep. Justin Amash, L-Mich., said “using every tool to compel party members to stick with the team.” This dynamic will devalue the influence of Congress as a whole by reducing room for individual senators to do anything without support from leadership.

It is understandable why many are frustrated with the current state of affairs. But dismantling systems that prevent the “tyranny of the majority” in a time when both sides have shown a disinterest in thinking beyond their own bases will leave us even more at the mercy of a current class of political leadership that has repeatedly prioritized the political aspects of their job over courageous leadership.

While granting D.C. statehood is an admirable goal, it should not be done at the cost of all of the potential one-sided laws that would come from eliminating the filibuster. Defund Sanctuary Cities (2015)? Deny employees a secret ballot to unionize (2007)? Ban abortion at 20 weeks (2015)? Collapse the dollar during the recession by suing the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (2008)? All of this and more would be law today without the filibuster.

I understand how easy it can be to focus only on the winner-take-all nature of contemporary politics. But governing is about more than “winning” and “losing” – it is about maintaining the integrity of America for generations to come.

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