Courtney: The filibuster or progress. Pick one.

The progress of Biden and the Democrats hinges on the removal of the filibuster.


by Zach Courtney

Let’s start here: Joe Biden deserves some credit. He garnered just enough support in the Senate to pass a wildly popular $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. This bill is great, especially the expansion of the child tax credit (which functions as a basic income for parents) that will cut child poverty in half for a year. And just this past Wednesday, Biden released a $2 trillion proposal focused on infrastructure and climate, what his administration is calling the “American Jobs Plan.” It calls for additional spending on roads, bridges, housing, high-speed broadband, clean drinking water and more. This would be offset by an increase in the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, among other changes. It also calls for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a pro-union bill.

Biden has a slew of policies on the docket that he has expressed support for: the For the People Act (commonly referred to as HR1), the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and part two of his infrastructure bill, which will focus on the “human infrastructure” (child care, universal pre-K, free community college and more).

If you think this all sounds great, you’re right. It would make massive strides in providing education to everyone, primarily from ages 4 to 20. It would create jobs and combat the threat of climate change. It’s all for nothing, however, if the Senate doesn’t remove its filibuster rule.

“Zach, what the heck is a filibuster?”

Twenty years ago, that’d be a common response to my headline and previous sentence. Now, however, most of you have probably heard of this odd Senate rule. Using the filibuster, any senator can object to ending debate and moving a bill to a vote. If three-fifths of the 100 senators — so 60 — vote to end the debate, then the bill can move forward to a vote. Senators adopted the tactic to ensure seemingly endless debate, a hallmark of the Senate as a whole. If a senator wants to debate a bill, they are free to do so. However, the massive downside is that they now abuse this rule to the point where 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation in the Senate. One exception is the American Rescue Plan Act, President Biden’s relief bill, which passed through the budget reconciliation process, a special procedure that allows bills that only impact the budget to be brought to a vote with just 50 votes. This process can only be used a limited number of times per year and can only be used on things that impact the budget. For example, the minimum wage increase to $15 an hour was ruled ineligible through the budget reconciliation process.

So, Senate Republicans can hold up most legislation from even coming to a vote because of this weird Senate rule. This leaves the Democratic senators with a seemingly binary choice: Keep the filibuster and get nothing done, or remove the filibuster and get legislation passed.

The removal of the filibuster needs to happen soon before state Republicans can pass too much detrimental legislation. As Republicans at the federal level seem unwilling to govern, Republicans at the state level are pushing to make voting more difficult. In Georgia, a bill that will restrict access to voting just passed, which a statement from Atlanta-based Delta Airlines says will, “Make it harder for underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives.”

This new law comes just months after the reliably red state went to President Biden and Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, giving the Democrats control of both the White House and the Senate. Sen. Warnock sums up my thoughts on the issue pretty well, saying, “We have to pass voting rights no matter what, and it’s a contradiction to insist on minority rights in the Senate while refusing to stand up for minority rights in the society.”

In my opinion, if the Senate Democrats fail to remove the filibuster and get meaningful legislation passed, it opens the door for the Republicans to gain the majority in either the Senate or the House in the midterm. If this happens, almost nothing will happen in the second half of Biden’s first term in office, leaving the door open for a Republican to win the White House in 2024. It seems like it should be an easy decision for the Senate Democrats, right?

Joe Biden needs to come out in favor of the removal, not reform, of the Senate’s filibuster, but that much is not enough. This comes down to the most moderate (I prefer to call them extreme) Senate Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. There are only two choices: the filibuster or progress. I hope they choose the latter.