Alan Zendell, March 27, 2021
I’m not an expert in either government or politics, but if there’s anything in our history that has a worse record of hypocrisy than the Senate filibuster, I’m not aware of it. As we learned in seventh grade civics, the filibuster is a procedural mechanism unique to the Senate that prevents a majority party from steamrollering the opposition and effectively governing by one-party rule. There are many arguments for or against, and many claims about what its true purpose is, most of which are hypocritical in the extreme.
For example, in the latest incarnation of the filibuster debate, Democrats are calling the filibuster a racist tool. That’s like calling a knife a tool designed primarily for murder. The filibuster is a parliamentary procedure that is an essential element of the way the Senate does business. Inherently neither good nor evil, how it is used depends on who is in power and what is specifically at issue. Attacking the filibuster on moral or ethical grounds ignores the reality that politicians change their stance on it depending on how the wind blows.
Radical left-wing activists like Al Sharpton argue that the filibuster represents a return to Jim Crow segregationist politics, a sentiment mildly echoed by President Biden, yesterday. The filibuster and Jim Crow politics were synonymous for most of the first half of the twentieth century, when a small group of segregationist Senators were able to block every attempt to pass civil rights legislation. But in recent decades, the filibuster has been an effective tool of obstruction on a wide range of issues.
When he was Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell used the filibuster to block every initiative proposed by President Barack Obama after Republicans took back the majority in 2010. McConnell changed the rules and turned the filibuster into a never-ending roadblock, but when it came time to pass Trump’s 2017 tax law, he had no problem with suspending it.
When Republicans held the majority in the Senate, notable Democrats like Delaware Senator Joe Biden and New York Senator Chuck Schumer defended the filibuster as essential to the survival of democracy. A few years earlier, serving in a Bush Senate with a large Republican majority, Senator Barack Obama argued that eliminating the filibuster would ensure Senate gridlock and kill any chance of bipartisan government.
Today, as the cycle of hypocrisy over the filibuster enters the Biden era, Democrats like Al Sharpton, who never shies away from inflammatory rhetoric, are calling it a tool of White Supremacy. The context of Republicans attempting to assure that Democrats never win another national election, given that that can only happen if the votes of non-white minorities are suppressed, adds credibility to the Jim Crow narrative, but turning up the heat with charges of racism doesn’t help the situation.
The Biden administration faces serious obstacles to passing its agenda on voting rights and immigration. Racism is a subtext in both debates, but it is also a distraction from the more fundamental argument over the meaning of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. What is at stake is the viability of a representative government based on a two party system.
Republicans are in greater shock at losing the presidency and control of both houses of Congress than Democrats were when Trump pulled off the same feat in 2016, but current Republican concerns are literally existential. Why else, only two months into the Biden Administration would Republican controlled legislatures be engaged in a concerted rush to pass 250 state laws that reduce voter participation?
It’s no accident that this is occurring at a time when we’re all exhausted from the pandemic, and the millions of Americans who will be most negatively impacted by these new state laws are distracted by the need to find jobs and feed their families. If we take our collective eyes off the ball, and allow the disenfranchisement of millions of mostly nonwhite citizens at the lower end of the economic spectrum and the continuation of immigration policies that only exacerbate the situation, our democratic principles could be dealt a fatal blow.
That is what today’s argument over the filibuster is really about. Ignore the political BS from both sides. Our country’s future for at least the decade of the 2020s, and likely much longer, depends on codifying our democracy in federal law to assure that every citizen who wishes to cast a vote is able to. That will neutralize efforts at the state level to restrict voting, since federal law takes precedence over conflicting state laws. The slippery slope arguments about killing the filibuster are irrelevant. We needs these law passed, and we need them passed now before redistricting for the 2022 elections takes place. McConnell has been clear that that will only happen if the filibuster is not in play.