Big democracy reforms can't happen unless the Senate fixes its huge anti-democratic flaw
Golden is the author of "Unlock Congress" (Why Not Books, 2015) and a senior fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy. He is a member of The Fulcrum's editorial advisory board.
It's almost dead. And when we finally kill it off for good, it will be an epic day for our country.
I'm not talking about the Republican Party. Its survival will be up to its voters, or former voters.
And I'm not talking about the political death of the defendant whom the Senate just acquitted. Now that the trial is over, there's even more reason to ignore him.
I'm referring to the biggest blockage in our government, the one defect that has been holding us back from fixing the rest of the system's problems. For our system is rigged — just not in the ways you've become accustomed to hearing about from the world's loudest perch.
So, you may ask: What is it? When are you gonna name the thing?
First let me describe it — and the other big fixes it's holding up. If I were to take nearly the entire diagnosis in my book and distill it into 75 words, it would boil down to this:
American voters are ill-served and unfairly represented in Congress because of an electoral system that does two things. It allows officeholders to rig legislative races through the partisan drawing of maps ("gerrymandering") and by prohibiting candidates from running in general elections as independents after they've lost a primary. And it encourages officeholders to raise billions to keep their seats, resulting in behavior and decision-making that is probably corrupt and unrepresentative of the majority of Americans' preferences.
Now, before we get to the big "kill," two great developments have come to pass in the years since I started writing about this stuff.
First, reformers across the country have earned big wins to improve our system. A real movement has been quietly growing — from anti-corruption measures to money disclosure requirements to independent districting commissions and other fixes. One of the leading advocates of this charge, RepresentUs, is actually making reform cool.
Second, the For The People Act has been introduced again in Congress. It's called HR 1 in the House and S 1 in the Senate. The bill proposes two solutions straight out of my book, and would also confront voting rights. It's provisions include:
- Requiring states to convene independent commissions to draw congressional maps.
- Requiring disclosure of "dark money" contributions, setting up a small-donor matching system to empower candidates without wealthy networks, and strengthening the Federal Election Commission's oversight of so-called super PACs.
- Enacting new reforms to remove barriers to voting and mandating paper ballots so that elections can be audited to ensure accuracy.
Now, I can make Boy Scout arguments all day for improving our democracy, but the fact is there are clear political consequences from HR 1 passing — and the GOP knows it. Perhaps none would be bigger than reducing Republicans' current power to gerrymander districts in order to win back the House — which would happen even if the national vote was split down the middle.
Yet for the first time in 12 years, Democrats now have political control on Capitol Hill and in the White House. All things being equal, this is their moment.
But all things are not equal. And now it's time to melodramatically unveil that monstrous blockage that must be killed -- the dam preventing our government from doing the big things most of us want. It's a pair of dumb Senate rules born accidentally 215 years ago, requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation — instead of the simple majority specifically outlined in our Constitution.
These rules are called "filibuster" and "cloture." And they both need to die.
Simply put, the Democrats now hold 50 seats in the Senate, not enough to pass S 1 and upgrade our representative democracy so long as the GOP stands unified against it. Without 60 votes, that bill will never be more than a piece of paper.
When I first made my case to kill the filibuster, it was not popularly shared. Senators waxed lovingly of the "bipartisanship" the rules produced and extolled the rights of the minority. I wasn't buying it. Constitutional scholar Emmet Bondurant and I perforated the senators' smokescreen on this site a year ago .
In 2017, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell reversed years of his own statements and got the Senate to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, allowing President Trump to add three polarizing conservative justices. It was entirely predictable. McConnell plays hardball, and it's how he installed a new ideological majority on the bench that will live for decades.
Now will the Democrats do the same? Will they "go nuclear" and kill the filibuster on the one remaining thing it can thwart — the passage of laws?
We don't know. But we do know it's possible. Over the last year, some of the party's biggest stars have come aboard and publicly spoken out in favor of nuking it: Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Stacey Abrams, Pete Buttigieg and a fast-growing list of national opinion leaders.
They all make the same argument: We cannot buckle to GOP obstruction forever. Enough.
Standing in the way of the filibuster's final death are two Democratic senators from more conservative states, West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema. They have vowed not to vote for its elimination for the next two years. Yet pressure has a way of moving politicians.
Perhaps Obama said it best in last year's eulogy for John Lewis, who fought for voting rights his entire life and helped to shape HR 1. As Obama talked about the imperative of outlawing gerrymandering and restoring voting protections that have been gutted, he declared:
"If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do."
Are you listening, senators? Do you want to get big things done? You have the power to make it happen. All you have to do is use it.
- Television a cause of dysfunctional Senate, study says - The Fulcrum ›
- What a Democratic sweep would mean for democracy reform - The ... ›
- McConnell opens door for Democrats to unrig the system: End the ... ›
- Presidential outcome may portend Senate filibuster's finish - The ... ›
- The Senate filibuster explained – and why it should be allowed to die ›
- The Racist History Of The Senate Filibuster : Fresh Air : NPR ›
- Joe Biden, the 2020 election, and the case for ending the filibuster ... ›
- 'Jim Crow relic': Senate filibuster stands in way of Democratic voting ... ›
- What is the Senate filibuster, and what would it take to eliminate it? ›