Last Friday, a bipartisan Senate majority including six Republicans voted by a margin of 54 to 35 to proceed on legislation to create an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection and the events leading up to it. But the motion to end debate and bring the bill to a vote failed. Sounds pretty crazy, doesn’t it? A clear minority had veto power over the will of the people.
Welcome to the filibuster, a byzantine tool used to keep the Senate from voting on an issue.
The Founding Fathers plainly intended for legislation to pass on majority votes. In Federalist Paper 22, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser.” Hamilton went on to say that the real purpose behind blocking a majority vote was “to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”
Since the 1950s, filibusters were the favorite tool of both civil rights opponents and freedom of choice proponents; in the past few years, it has been the favorite weapon of the Republican Party to kill bills like the Paycheck Fairness Act, Emergency Seniors Relief Act, the Dream act, and gun violence protection. And now, a divided GOP has thrown a roadblock in the path of getting at the root causes of the most serious attack on the Capitol since 1812.
The Jan. 6 insurrection was, to quote NPR, “the culmination of weeks of incendiary rhetoric and increasingly feverish planning — much of which took place openly on websites popular with far-right conspiracy theorists” with “torrents of disinformation and outright lies about the results of the election. And those lies often came from the top arbiters of power in the Republican Party, notably President Donald Trump himself.” Some Republicans were quick to denounce the event and the president. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said the “president’s conduct wasn’t merely reckless and destructive. It was a flagrant dereliction of his duty to uphold and defend the Constitution.” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said, “I want him out.” Other Republicans were just as pointed in their criticism of the President’s words and deeds.
Even Mitch McConnell said of the rioters, “the mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government.”
With that as background, 35 Republicans voted with Democrats to form a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol. Trump loyalists in the House stood against discovering the truth and tried to rewrite history with statements like those of Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde. He declared the House floor was never breached and the mob resembled a “normal tourist visit” and behaved in “an orderly fashion.”
McConnell had originally left the door open for Senate members to vote for the commission, but he moved to oppose it just days after the former president had attacked the idea. Even so, a half-dozen Republican Senators voted to put country over party.
With the vote for cloture having been defeated, the filibuster is still alive. In the near future Sen. Majority Leader Schumer may bring up another vote to end debate. If that fails, then it’s virtually certain the House will empanel a select committee to carry out the investigation. House Speaker Pelosi will doubtless have a Democratic majority on that panel. The Republican filibuster just cost them an equal voice in the proceedings. It also reminds us that the GOP minority has every intention to block necessary and not coincidentally, popular legislation to modernize our country’s infrastructure, to deal with Russian mischief, to fix the broken immigration system, to restore sanity to our tax code, and to address the climate crisis.
Elections have consequences. President Biden earned the right to steer the ship of state, and he invited Republicans to have a voice in how best to achieve the goals he sets. The filibuster is the GOP’s weapon to do in Congress what America rejected at the ballot box. It’s high time to return to the Founding Fathers’ vision of majority rule and strengthen democracy by removing the filibuster.
Mitch Edelman, vice chairperson of the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee, writes from Finksburg. His column appears every other Tuesday. Email him at email@example.com.