West Virginia’s Joe Manchin set some hearts aflutter over the weekend when he went on the TV talk shows to say he’s open to reforming the Senate filibuster by at least making it more difficult to conduct one. One presumes he has in mind the climactic scene in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” when Jimmy Stewart successfully held the floor of the U.S. Senate all by himself causing his guilt-ridden nemesis to eventually confess wrongdoing. Senate filibusters aren’t conducted like around-the-clock marathons anymore, and that was a movie. It was, for lack of a better word, fake. We feel obligated to remind Senator Manchin of this because there seems to be a fiction that the filibuster makes the U.S. Senate a better, more honest, less corruptible place. Oh, if only it were so.
That Senator Manchin has such extraordinary power in his hands — the ability to set Senate rules — is bad enough. The 73-year-old Democrat was last reelected to office in 2018 with a total of 290,510 votes. Joe Biden won more than 81 million votes just four months ago. Yet it’s Mr. Manchin who seems in control of the nation’s agenda. Never mind the president’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill is set to receive final passage in the House on Tuesday despite GOP opposition. That was made possible by an atypical parliamentary procedure known as budget reconciliation that only requires a majority vote in the Senate. The Democrats won’t have that weapon when other controversial matters like addressing police mistreatment of minorities to election reform come before the body in the days ahead. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he intends to filibuster them all, which means Mr. Biden would need to find 10 Republicans to win favor. Good luck with that.
President Biden has expressed a willingness to compromise. That’s commendable. But when was the last time meaningful yet controversial legislation escaped the Senate with a 60-vote margin? The CARES Act passed the Senate unanimously at the scariest moment of the pandemic last year, so that hardly counts. In reality, the filibuster is an archaic rule that was designed to keep the minority from getting run over and instead has thwarted the majority in a ridiculous way. It was one thing when states were similar in population. In 1800, the most extreme example was how Virginia was 10 times the size of Delaware, but that was exceptional. In 2020, California is more than 66 times the size of Wyoming, and it’s not exceptional. The will of a majority of Americans may soon be thwarted because Republicans have disproportionate power through these lightly-populated rural states. Fixing that requires a constitutional amendment that won’t pass the Senate. Fixing the filibuster? That merely requires a majority vote to rewrite Senate Rule 22 so that a majority of senators present in the chamber can invoke cloture.
Filibusters used to be a rarity; now, they are common. It’s claimed they encourage bipartisanship but they haven’t. What it causes is legislative paralysis. Granted, some politicians like that. They’ll soon talk about the Biden “failed” agenda to their constituents without bothering to mention how they contributed to its failure. And then they’ll run against the “D.C. establishment” without acknowledging their role in keeping the status quo. Americans didn’t elect Mr. Biden so that most of his proposals would be shelved by senators from small states. If Americans don’t like the Biden agenda, they can always dump members of Congress who supported it by means of the ballot box. With the filibuster, they’ll never get the chance. The Senate will block everything. Nobody wins. Not the Democrats, not the Republicans and certainly not the American people.
Bipartisanship is a noble goal. But it requires the so-called loyal opposition to have an agenda beyond partisan self-interest. Granted, there have been glimmers of hope such as when seven GOP senators voted to convict Donald Trump on the charge of incitement to insurrection last month. But that was truly exceptional and now they’re paying a steep political price, as most in their party continue to cower to the former president. There are the handful like, such as Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, who might be willing to negotiate. But winning over 10? Not this Senate, not this political environment with its tribal instincts. Senator Manchin is either delusional or simply likes playing power broker. So yes, we’ll take any filibuster reforms he’s offering, but this outdated, undemocratic rule ought to be scrapped entirely.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.