Going Nuclear: The Necessity of Eliminating the Filibuster and Passing H.R. 1
By Kyler Rowzee
In 2016, for the first time in its history, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”. From 2006 to 2019, the United States has fallen from the 17th to the 25th position on the index. Idealists who view the US as a beacon of democratic values would be taken aback by this characterization. However, upon analysis of the inner workings of our electoral systems and government, calling our system a “flawed democracy” may be an understatement.
In the eight presidential elections following George H. W. Bush’s 1988 victory over Michael Dukakis, the Democratic party has won the popular vote seven times. Despite a clear mandate for Democrat leadership, two of the seven elections produced Republican presidents who then fundamentally shifted the course of domestic and foreign affairs, failed spectacularly in leading the country through times of war, economic crisis, natural disaster, and public health emergencies, and enacted deeply unpopular policies. Despite functionally making up only 50 seats in the United States Senate, the Democratic caucus represents 41 million more people than their Republican colleagues. Though the US House of Representatives is designed to function as a proportionally representative legislative body, rampant racial gerrymandering has dampened the voting power of minorities and low propensity voters. Partisan gerrymandering has allowed politicians to craft safe congressional districts that not only ensure the incumbent party retains power, but also fosters extremism as the incumbent is more threatened by a primary from their party than a general election opponent.
The Supreme Court’s gutting of Section 4(b) and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder ruling has led to the most brazen displays of voter suppression of the modern era. These sections required state and municipal governments with a history of voter suppression to obtain federal preclearance to change election laws. The 5-4 majority opinion, delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts, deemed this statute unnecessary because racist practices had largely subsided.
However, since this decision in 2013, Roberts has been proven wrong. From voter roll purges to discriminatory voter ID laws, there have been consistent efforts by politicians to suppress constituents’ rights to vote. Between statewide voter suppression and advantages in national elections, the Republican party has consistently held power while spending most of their time obstructing legislation that holds vast bipartisan support while implementing deeply unpopular policies that tend to empower the special interest groups that sustain them.
This is no way for the most powerful and longest-sustaining democracy to operate. If we are to attain the equitable and prosperous democratic society our founders envisioned, then we must enact sweeping changes that will upend the systemic barriers to this goal. Luckily, the new Democrat congressional majority has identified democracy reform as a top legislative priority and plans to propel this issue to the forefront of the national conversation with The For the People Act.
H.R. 1, The For the People Act, would expand voting rights and accessibility at a scale never before seen in this country. It seeks to create automatic voter registration, protect against voter roll purges, ban partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to outsource redistricting to an independent commission, restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals, establish a 6-1 matching system for campaign donations up to $200, strengthen mail-in voting, expand early voting, and so much more. Its companion bill, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, would restore the previously mentioned sections of the voting rights gutted by the Supreme Court.
These pieces of legislation address the years of injustice imposed by voter suppression and systemic democratic flaws and provide solutions that are crucial in order to maintain democratic sustainability. They will also ensure state legislatures can no longer erode voting rights at a time when over 165 voter suppression bills in 33 states have been proposed in accordance with former President Donald Trump’s seditious assault on democracy.
Plus, H.R. 1 has garnered super-majority support among the American people and has recently passed the House of Representatives. One may wonder, given unified Democratic government and broad public support, how President Biden and the Democrats have not managed to swiftly enact their top legislative priority.
The reason the For the People Act is not the law of the land is the same reason so many other popular pieces of legislation such as healthcare reform, infrastructure spending, gun reform, and climate action have yet to see a vote. It is the chief propellant of the perpetual gridlock in Congress that has eroded public faith in government and led to a dynamic where neither side can achieve remotely any major legislative achievements or reach a bipartisan compromise on the issues plaguing this nation. The reason is the filibuster.
In summary, the filibuster serves as a functional 60 vote requirement to pass any legislation through the Senate. In order to end debate and advance a given piece of legislation to a floor vote, the majority leader requests unanimous consent from the 100 senators to advance the bill to a majority vote. Often, a senator will object. The leader will then file a cloture motion which requires 60 votes to end debate on the legislation. Though only a majority of senators are needed to pass a bill in the Senate, the minority party always maintains the power to completely derail the majority’s legislative agenda by blocking or even merely threatening to block a floor vote. Because a 60 seat majority has become impossible to attain, this system incentivizes the minority party to stymie progress on any legislation they oppose and subsequently frames the re-election campaign as a proxy referendum on the majority’s ineffective governance.
For most of the Senate’s history, the filibuster has rarely been imposed. From 1941 to 1970, the Senate took only thirty-six votes to break filibusters, but in the two-year period from 2009 to 2010, they took ninety-one. Flagrant invocations of the filibuster have not only catalyzed the Senate's transformation into a nearly defunct legislative body, but it has also granted vast influence to an ever-shrinking and already disproportionately represented minority whose guiding principle is to obstruct the will of the majority, thus eroding the public confidence in the government’s ability to adequately represent their constituents.
Though the Senate has reformed the filibuster process in the past, mainly to ban its use in judicial and cabinet confirmations, eliminating the filibuster will be no easy task. A simple majority can rule to end the filibuster, but as of right now, there is not a majority coalition to end the filibuster in the Senate. Democrat senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have both expressed opposition to the filibuster’s termination, along with, presumably, the entire Republican caucus (though Manchin has recently indicated that he would consider certain reforms). Convincing these Senators to change their opinion would require tremendous political capital. It would require that the filibuster is not eliminated on its own but as a means of advancing highly popular and existentially important legislation.
This is why, when the For the People Act advances to the Senate floor and the Republicans refuse to cooperate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer must lead Senate Democrats in going “nuclear” and abolishing the filibuster.
At a time where the American system, once the model of effectiveness and functionality, has fallen to the “flawed democracy” status, democracy reform has never been more crucial. At a time when we are faced with a myriad of crises including tragic mass shootings and climate change, a. responsive government has never been more essential. Eliminating the filibuster and subsequently passing the For the People Act would serve as the ultimate antidote to the poison killing American democracy. It would reignite the energy of the government, equitably delegate power to a representative and responsive majority, and restructure politicians’ incentives around effective, bipartisan solutions and not scorched earth obstruction of the opposition. If Congress fails to end the filibuster and pass this bill, they will forge the road towards a bleak future defined by an unresponsive and unrepresentative government, voter suppression, and deterioration of public trust in institutions.