By Sid Schwab / Herald columnist
Our founders included the filibuster in the Constitution for good reason: Democracy, they agreed, in which government responds to and reflects the will of the people, depends on the ability of a minority of senators, representing a minority of the population, to block legislation; especially bills supported by a majority of voters. 76 percent, in the case of the American Rescue Plan. Those wise men knew what they were doing.
Omigosh. So sorry. Doggone spell-check. The founders did no such thing. In fact, they couldn’t imagine requiring a 60 percent majority to pass legislation. This we know because the singular role they created for the vice president was to cast the decisive vote in the case of a Senate tie. By simple majority, is what they considered the logical way to ratify legislation. Supermajorities were for impeachments and overriding vetoes.
Nor, when the filibuster appeared, like a carbuncle, could a 40 percent minority simply say, “Don’t do that or we’ll grind things to a halt,” and not actually have to do it. Back then, like Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith, they had to hold the floor continuously. Because there were no rules limiting debate, when persuasion wouldn’t work, legislation could be suffocated by filibuster. Eventually, as pressing issues facing the country grew in number, so did demands for ways to force an end to debate. Cloture, it’s called.
That came about in 1917, when cloture was allowed if agreed to by two-thirds of the senators. Over the following 40 years, it was invoked only five times. Inevitably, filibusters (from “filibusteros,” Spanish for pirates) became increasingly frequent, especially to block civil rights legislation, including laws against lynching. It wasn’t until 1964 that a filibuster was overcome to get the Civil Rights Act approved. In 1975, the required amount of senators voting for cloture was reduced to three-fifths. Now, insidiously, that super-majority has become the default to pass all legislation except, once per fiscal year and subject to many qualifications, for “budget reconciliation.” For Mitch McConnell, filibuster is the weapon of choice. So much for the will of the people (Vox: tinyurl.com/4bill2pass).
“Gee whiz,” weep the Mitch-like. “Without the filibuster, the majority would have all the power. There’d be no effort at bipartisanship.” They’re right, of course. That’s why, if the Seattle Mariners are behind when the game ends, they threaten to stay on the field until the runs they need are added to the score. It’s only fair.
If anyone knows about bipartisanship, it’s Mitch. Ask the Republican leaders he gathered, literally on President Obama’s first inauguration day, agreeing to block whatever he proposed, sight unseen. Ask Mr. Justice Gorsuch. Ask President Obama, too, who included Republican demands in the Affordable Care Act and the Recovery Act, disappointing liberals, thinking (silly man) it’d garner Republican votes. Having received much of what they wanted, they still voted no, every single one of them. Which they’re now doing to President Biden. Republicans dumped bipartisanship decades ago. Crocodile tears.
Just you wait, warns Mitch. If Democrats end the filibuster, it’ll become a “scorched earth” Senate when Republicans regain control. Really? He scorched the earth during every Democratic presidency. When that recently-defeated guy was “president,” he did it by spiking more than 400 bills the majority House Democrats sent over. He did it with every federal judge foisted by the Federalist Society, no matter how unqualified.
President Biden said he prefers bipartisanship, but no Republicans voted for his plans. Therefore, he was lying. Funny thing, though, about that 76 percent approval of his rescue legislation: it’s more than 20 percentage points higher than his winning election margin. Which means it appeals to many Republicans; just, unsurprisingly, not the impactions in Congress. It’s only by Foxian definition that that’s not bipartisan. Biden aims to be a president for all Americans, not just the far right-wing. That was the recently-soundly-defeated guy.
And how’s this for bipartisanship: after passage, several voting-no Republicans are touting the Rescue Act to their constituents as if they deserve credit. The hypocrisy is stupefying.
After their Georgia defeats, it was re-confirmed to Republicans that fair elections are their enemy. Therefore, across America, they’re busy creating legislation designed specifically to hinder voting by Democrats. If they’re able to filibuster the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which, because Democrats believe in democracy, would make voting equally accessible to all citizens and each vote given equal weight, America would become a minority-rule plutocracy. Undeniably, that’s their goal.
As used by Mitch McConnell, the filibuster has become incompatible with democracy. It needs to go. Or return to what Jimmy Stewart did, all those years ago (tinyurl.com/jimmyisdown).
Email Sid Schwab at email@example.com.