The Filibuster: Should Democrats ‘Detonate the Nuclear’?

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Progressives have been pushing to get rid of the filibuster for months if they gained control of the three main forms of government. However, eliminating the filibuster has the potential to empower the Republicans just as much as the Democrats, as seen in 2013 and 2017, and getting rid of the filibuster will not suddenly allow Democrats to pass all the legislation they want, as this would require a united party. A united party is, as we already know, something that the Democrats are struggling with.

The decision to ‘detonate the nuclear’ first began in 2013, when Democrats were in the majority in the Senate, led by the then majority leader Harry Reed. After months of feuding with Republicans to confirm or allow nominations from Obama to go forward in the Senate, the Democrats proposed a change to the rules so the filibuster could no longer be used in Judicial nominations. At the time, while it was seen as a radical move, it seemed to be the right thing to do. As of the 168 filibusters of executive nominations, half of these had occurred during the Obama administration. However, the decision to ‘detonate the nuclear’ set a precedent for the new Republican Trump administration in 2017, as they proceeded to do just as the Democrats did in 2013, eliminating the last bit of power to filibuster a judicial nominee and thus making it impossible to do for a Supreme Court nomination. This then led to three Trump appointed Supreme Court Justices, Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsege. 

Senator Mitch McConnell, the leading force advocating to keep the filibuster, has deployed calculated tactics in his attempt to stop the Democrats from detonating the nuclear once again. By quoting James Maddison in his speech to the Senate, McConnell is giving off the impression that he is faithfully upholding the American constitution and preserving the value of the Senate, but this is just another example of Republicans trying to twist the truth to serve their agenda. In actual fact, the filibuster is not part of the constitution. The first known use of the filibuster didn’t actually occur until 1837, and the filibuster as we now know it wasn’t developed until 1917 when Woodrow Wilson called on Democrats in the Senate to reform the filibuster. Since then, and as parties became more polarized, it has become a tool in blocking legislation – particularly civil rights legislation – and stopping progress. 

McConnell has a great deal of self-interest in the ongoing debate. His argument to keep the filibuster is most likely motivated by his desire to retain an element of power. However, it seems hypocritical of him to now oppose the removal of the filibuster, but yet in 2017, as Senate majority leader, used his power to ‘detonate the nuclear’ to further the Republican agenda in order to appoint Trump endorsed Supreme Court members. So, if he can support the removal of the filibuster for lifetime supreme court nominees, why can’t he for legislation which can be reversed? The answer is that getting rid of the filibuster and passing through legislation to help rebuild America after Trump’s awful handling of the pandemic is exactly what Republicans fear. Biden’s success would further highlight the failures of Trump and the Republican Party not just with the pandemic, but with race relations, climate change and the economy. Republicans just aren’t concerned about working with the Biden administration. Much of the party still staunchly supports Trump and spends most of their time spreading lies and conspiracy theories in an attempt to gain power and support, rather than advocating for policy. 

Biden might need to rethink his notion of bipartisanship if he wants to push through his agenda. Getting rid of the filibuster should be kept as an option, but it’s not the only option. Democrats either need to maintain or grow the degree of popularity that they had in the 2020 election and the Georgia runoffs, or rebalance the electoral playing field through structural reforms. It is important to eliminate the ability of the minority to block legislation to such an extent that they have, while still giving them some sort of a platform, but making it easier to bring bills for votes. 

The attention of the filibuster highlights fundamental issues with the organization of the constitution. While the purpose of the Senate is to deliberate and ultimately challenge the majority, equal representation (two senators per state) was given to each state in order to stop smaller states from breaking off. This has caused an imbalance in representation of each state’s population. Keeping the filibuster, as it is now, prevents the institutions from changing and developing just as the country and its people do.

Words by Jen Jenkins

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