The simple fact is that President Biden is not pulling out all the stops to pass voting rights, despite the enormity of the threat to our democracy. One of the options available to Biden and Senate Democrats includes passing voting rights by a simple majority without ever voting to change the filibuster rules.
Over the past six months, many supporters of Senator Kyrsten Sinema have found themselves scratching their heads over her actions. After running and winning her Senate seat with the full backing of the Democratic party and grassroots leaders, Sinema has somewhat inexplicably turned her back on priorities she used to support. While her controversial stances have garnered her much media attention, it has come at the cost of President Joe Biden’s success.
The first one hundred days were, by many measures, successful. There has been much talk of learning the lessons of 2009. We are hopeful that this is the case. The facts on the ground suggest more similarities to 2009 than differences. In some key ways, Democrats are actually behind their 2009 pace.
This memo provides a brief overview of the filibuster. Far from being a foundational feature of the
Senate, the filibuster was opposed by the Framers, and has been targeted for elimination or reform by moderates of both parties. The filibuster does not promote bipartisanship, it promotes gridlock, and it is breaking the Senate. Senators concerned for the institutional health of the Senate should favor reform.
In an April 3 piece for the New York Times, political journalist Nate Cohn draws on political
science research to argue that making voting easier does little to improve voting rates or
reduce turnout inequalities (Cohn 2021). Consequently, he claims, efforts to restrict voting
access (such as Georgia’s recent voter suppression bill) are less harmful than many perceive
them to be, and attempts to expand access (such as passing HR1 and SR1) may not be worth
President Biden made major commitments to the American people rooted in his core promise to “restore the soul of the nation.” One hundred days into his administration, with unified Democratic control of Congress, strides have been made toward erasing the stain of the previous administration and setting the country on a different path. Regarding COVID-19, the administration’s actions on distributing and administering the vaccines are particularly laudable. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan was an important step toward stabilizing the country, and we applaud the administration for prioritizing its passage and not capitulating to Republican demands for insufficient relief.
We write to you today as leading progressive organizations fighting for bold and inclusive climate, racial and immigrant justice policies to strongly urge you to include a pathway to citizenship for immigrant youth, Temporary Protective Status holders, and essential workers in your upcoming Build Back Better economic recovery plan.
Too often, the question on the filibuster gets asked in the abstract, but it’s not an abstract question. Key elements of the Biden agenda will fail if the filibuster remains in place. Moving forward, it will be important to frame the filibuster question in concrete terms, since this is how senators will face it. In addition, it is also important to challenge mythical historical narratives and underscore the limited time that a period of unified Democratic control of Washington has to implement any legislative victories.
This memo outlines the evolution of the filibuster from the “talking filibuster” into the supermajority threshold we know today. Nonexistent in the Framers’ vision, the talking filibuster first emerged in the middle of the 19th century, after all the Framers had passed away. Its chief innovator and practitioner was John C. Calhoun, who sought to increase the power of the minority in the Senate on behalf of the slaveowners he represented. When James Madison had designed the Senate, he had intended the minority to be guaranteed a voice in the process, but he made clear that all decision points were to remain majority-rule (except those enumerated in the Constitution for supermajority thresholds, like removal from office and Constitutional amendments). As Calhoun explicitly stated, his own goal was to expand the minority’s power beyond what Madison had intended, into an outright veto over the majority.
In the Senate, the power to issue rulings resides in the Presiding Officer, not the Parliamentarian. Indeed, it is in keeping with the tradition of the Senate for the Presiding Officer to use their judgment on questions of Senate procedure. This used to be the unquestioned norm. Even in modern times, as the Vice President began presiding less frequently and the Senate shifted to a model that was more reliant on staff, there is precedent for the Presiding Officer using their own judgment to issue rulings.