Saturday, January 15, 2022

Is it time for the filibuster to go?

Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema (aided and abetted by - of course - pseudo-Democrat Joe Manchin) has decided, in her wisdom, to vote down the Democrat's attempt to remove the filibuster rule, even in isolated cases. The existence of the legislative filibuster effectively requires a 60% majority to pass any kind of legislation. Given the current evenly-balanced Senate, that effectively rules out passage of the hugely important Democratic legislation to protect voting rights in the USA.

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are both essential pieces of legislation to counter the rash of state-level legislation passed by Republican states recently, which are aimed at deliberately disenfranchising whole segments of the populace, and thereby ensuring Republican electoral victories. But Republicans in the Senate have already filibustered the two pieces of legislation - which have already been passed in the House of Representatives - four times, and look set to repeat that just as many times as needed until it goes away. Meanwhile, mid-term elections are coming up in 2022, which, thanks to the recent undemocratic Republican legislation changes, may mean that the Democrats lose any chance of passing ANYTHING at all for the rest of their administration.

So, the stakes are high, as Sinema and Manchin both know. Senator Sinema has made no secret of her love for the filibuster, which she sees as enhancing democracy, ensuring bipartisanship, and easing "the underlying disease of division infecting our country". Fine words perhaps, but impossibly naive and even disingenuous, especially at this particular political juncture. 

With the spectre of post-Trump Republicans pulling out all the stops to ensure future election victories by whatever means possible, this is not the time to be pursuing airy-fairy notions of how things should be. There is important work to be done, and the filibuster rule is getting in the way of democracy right now.

filibuster is, essentially, a way for a relatively small group of Senators to (legally) block an action by the majority. US Senate rules allow one or more Senators to speak on any topic they wish, for as long as they wish (thereby delaying the vote on a bill, potentially forever), unless three-fifths of the Senators bring the debate to a close by invoking "cloture".

Legal? Yes. Democratic? Maybe. But the American Founding Fathers certainly never envisaged a Congress where a 60% vote was needed to get anything done; the regular 50% simple majority is what is built into the Constitution. In fact, the filibuster rule was a 19th invention invention employed only sparingly over most of America's political history (and not always for defensible reasons - it was used extensively to prop up the racist Jim Crow laws in the 1950s, for example). In the late 20th and early 21st century, though, it suddenly became a much more popular ploy, used, it should be noted, by both parties, and again, not always for commendable reasons.

"Filibuster" is actually an old 19th century word for a plunderer or pirate, which gives a good idea of how it was seen when it was first introduced. How has it now become an indispensable part of democratic discourse? Given the partisan gridlock that characterizes American politics right now, it is, in my opinion, doing Democracy a disservice, and people like Sinema and Manchin need to wake you to that before it is too late, and the Republicans impose their ugly right wing vision for good and all.

It's by no means certain that, even without a filibuster, the Democrats would be able to pass the much-needed legislation (particularly given the presence of mavericks like Sinema and Machin). What's abundantly clear, though, is that it is never going to pass while the filibuster exists.

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