Janine Jackson: U.S. citizens overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly want healthcare, jobs with livable wages, more equitable taxes on wealth, and everyone’s right to vote protected. The U.S. is a nominal democracy, and majorities of the electorate support these things, and the party that promised these things controls the presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate. And yet here we still are.
I will surprise no one by saying that one important thing standing between people’s needs (and elected Democrats’ mandate) and a better future for millions is the filibuster, the senatorial rule that allows a minority of senators to extend debate on legislation indefinitely, unless the majority party can put together 60 votes.
Just because a word is invoked frequently or fervently in news media doesn’t mean they’re explaining it meaningfully, and this is an issue where Americans’ ignorance abets devastatingly important political obfuscation—hobbling our ability to enact changes that we want and need and have called for.
So here to help us understand the filibuster and the role it’s playing now is Andrew Perez. Andrew Perez covers money and influence as senior editor and reporter at the Daily Poster. He joins us now by phone from Maine. Welcome to CounterSpin, Andrew Perez.
Andrew Perez: Thanks so much for having me.
JJ: At FAIR, we’re not about blaming the people. You might remember your high school civics class, and you might read the Times or the Washington Post every day, and you can still be misinformed or underinformed about, in this case, what the filibuster is and what it does.
So just to start somewhere, I think many people (of a certain age, but even beyond that) think about Jimmy Stewart, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and he’s talking himself hoarse on the Senate floor in a fight against corruption and cronyism.
Deadline ran a piece recently, noting that even when that movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, came out in 1939, the filibuster already had a history associated with blocking civil rights legislation, and particularly Southern senators filibustering a bill against lynching—a bill that huge numbers of the public supported. So if we’re talking emblems of the history of the filibuster, maybe less Jimmy Stewart, more Strom Thurmond, would you say?
Andrew Perez: Yeah, today, as it stands, the majority party in the Senate is required to find 60 votes to end debate on any legislation; Congress, or the Senate, has definitely limited the power of the majority to actually enact their agenda. The minority party doesn’t have to marshal all these votes on the floor; they don’t have to marshal people to talk indefinitely to try to filibuster a piece of legislation. Instead, what basically happens is the process will just continue; no legislation can advance unless the majority party can together marshal 60 votes on the Senate floor.
JJ: So they don’t have to talk until they’re hoarse; they just have to say, “We’re agin it.”
AP: Yeah, the onus is really on the majority party to produce their votes, rather than on the minority party to stand there on the floor to talk their faces off. Yes, the onus is completely on the majority party at this point.
JJ: It’s interesting: It’s seen as “protecting the minority,” that’s one sort of thing that you hear. And then it’s also, maybe even more frequently, talked about as “preserving bipartisan collegiality,” or, said differently, “forcing Democrats and Republicans to work together.” But is that what it is? It seems like, at this point, it’s really more cynical and even more sinister than that.
AP: Yeah. Some people like to think that the Senate is just intrinsically supposed to be this cooling saucer—the way the founders intended—but, yeah, there hasn’t been much collegiality between the parties for quite a while.
And I guess it could work in theory, where there’s some give and take on legislation. But one of the primary issues here is that there’s not any kind of agreement between Democrats and Republicans on the type of legislation, or what the broader issues are that Congress should be addressing. It’s not like, “OK, we’re going to take a certain issue, and let’s hear your side of it and let’s hear our side of it.” The issue is more that Republicans just are never going to agree to pass any kind of priority agenda items from Democrats, even if it was a watered-down version.
And I think we’ve seen that a lot. A pretty classic example of it is the Affordable Care Act debate under President Obama: Democrats proposed legislation that is actually fairly conservative. The Affordable Care Act was basically an outgrowth of a Heritage Foundation idea years ago. Mitt Romney had passed legislation as the governor of Massachusetts, enacting the first test case for that type of legislation.
And there were zero Republican votes for it at all, no matter how watered down the bill got. Democrats didn’t include ideas like a public health insurance option or Medicare expansion—stuff we’re still talking about today.
AP: Those were on the table back in 2009 and 2010, and Democrats didn’t include any of them—and there were zero Republican votes for the bill.
JJ: And now we have Mitch McConnell saying that he’s “100%” focused on “stopping” Joe Biden’s administration; very similar to what he said under Obama. So it sounds weird when you then turn to Joe Manchin, who says, “Well, we can’t give up on working together.” It just seems like one of these things is not like the other.
AP: Yeah, there was a great story yesterday at the Intercept from Lee Fang about how Joe Manchin is looking to preserve the filibuster, and basically begging big donors to help put pressure on other Democrats—and Republicans—to try to get the parties to work together, just a shred, so that he can preserve the filibuster.
There was talk that he wanted them to lean on a specific senator, Roy Blunt from Missouri (who’s going to be retiring), basically try to pressure him to support a January 6 commission, so the parties will agree to investigate whatever happened at the Capitol insurrection a few months ago. And the reason for that was—he basically intimated they should dangle a job offer to Roy Blunt, so that he would support the January 6 commission, and then progressives and even more establishment Democratic senators would just lay off the gas a little bit on the need to end the filibuster, because it would be proof that, in some ways, the parties still could work together, if big business could buy off one Republican senator to support an investigation.
JJ: Boy, and you wonder why folks are turned off electoral politics, which maybe we’ll get to in a second.
But I just, in terms of point of information: Democrats, if they wanted to, could end the filibuster tomorrow, is that right? And there are reasons that they should want to not kick it down the road; there are reasons that if they really do want to put through their agenda, or what we understand to be their agenda, that now is a whole lot better than later.
AP: Yeah, definitely. So, yeah, Democrats can nuke the filibuster if they find 50 votes plus the vote from Kamala Harris as vice president. They can nuke the filibuster whenever they want. They could attempt to do that on the Senate floor.
And, yeah, there’s very good reasons to do it now, which is that Democrats right now—even though they have a very small Senate majority—they control both houses of Congress and the presidency, which means that they can actually enact whatever they want, in that case, without Republican input.
And not to sound too partisan, but I think it’s understood at this point: Republicans are not going to support any of Joe Biden’s agenda.
JJ: They’ve said it.
AP: Yeah, they’ve been pretty open about it. And there’s just a million different things that now is the time to pass. For instance, we haven’t had a minimum wage increase in 12 years; it just was never passed during the Obama administration. And the reason, in part, was because Democrats didn’t start talking about it until after they lost control of the House. And Republican Speaker John Boehner obstructed the agenda and wouldn’t have it.
So, yeah, now is the time that Democrats actually have full power to pass Joe Biden’s agenda, whether it’s one I like or whether it’s one that’s weak and moderate, what have you.
AP: It’s the only time any of that’s going to happen, because [there’s a] very good chance that Democrats lose control of the Senate soon. And, in fact, they could lose control of the Senate next November, but that could also happen literally any day, because they have a 50/50 majority there and a whole bunch of old, old senators.
JJ: Yeah, not to put too fine a point on it; it just is one health event away from a shift there.
JJ: Politicians love to split the difference; media love to do that triangulation as well, and meet in the middle somehow. And we’re hearing a lot about tweaks or modifications to the filibuster, or maybe a greater reliance on reconciliation? What’s your sense about tweaking versus eliminating? Is there a danger in fiddling around with details on the filibuster, rather than going big?
AP: Yeah. Joe Manchin is talking now, according to that Intercept piece, one of the ideas is like, “What if you only required 55 votes for cloture?” Well, that’s not going to do anything, right? Democrats don’t have 60 votes for anything; they don’t have 55 votes for anything.
And then maybe you return to the talking filibuster, the whole Mr. Smith Goes to Washington thing.
AP: That’s, again, a similar issue; you need to functionally change how this works.
I think there’s some concern with removing the guardrails from governing here, right, like, “What if Republicans are then able to impose their will, if they are then able to legislate however they see fit in a few years?” But if Democrats just continue fiddling around and not accomplishing anything, it increases the likelihood that Republicans control the Senate next cycle. It just does.
I think the party probably thinks that they’ve done a good job already during the Joe Biden administration, because they passed a single Covid-19 stimulus bill. That’s not going to carry people until next year; a lot of the benefits sunset fairly soon, including the unemployment provisions, the federal expanded unemployment benefits. And the other thing about it is, 25 states that are led by Republicans have actually already cancelled those unemployment benefits; they’re already ending this month and next month, instead of end of September.
So I think the economic impact of that legislation is getting affected already, and it wasn’t designed to carry the party for that long. Some of the stuff in there, they’re already trying to extend. I don’t think they’ll be rewarded if they just rest on their laurels from here on out, or pass another one or two big bills in the next two years. It’s just not a realistic approach to governance.
JJ: No, and doesn’t meet the occasion; far too many people are hurting.
JJ: Let me ask you, finally, about media: Back in 2009, FAIR’s Jim Naureckas was writing about how reporters at, for example, the Washington Post, used to make an effort to explain the filibuster. When they talked about it, they would say, “It might be harder to get 60 votes to cut off a filibuster”; they would tie that in there. And then along the years, it got dropped into a kind of shorthand. And then they began referring to just “the 60 votes most legislation requires,” so they got less and less clear, in terms of pointing out to readers what was going on.
And then, finally, everything Democrats promise is virtually contentless, it’s like shadowboxing, if they aren’t going to do the thing that will allow it to actually happen. And you’ve written about this; you suggested back in March that talking about new gun legislation, for example, if we don’t eliminate the filibuster, well, that’s just “meaningless,” and it “should be treated as such.”
And I just wonder, if media don’t connect Democratic promises to a failure to activate the mechanisms for making them happen, it just seems like they’re doing the public a serious disservice.
AP: Yeah, I think media cover a lot of the day-to-day, what goes on in Washington, what people are saying, like this new legislation just dropped, and maybe at the bottom, it might say, “There’s not a lot of chance that this will actually become law, because Democrats won’t be able to find 60 votes for this.”
AP: And I do think it does people a disservice, because this is an overriding issue; the filibuster functions as a general block on on all legislation.
So it was big news a couple of weeks ago when Joe Manchin endorsed the PRO Act, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which is a pretty sweeping package of labor reforms, and would be a really, really beneficial thing for this country; it would give people potentially a lot more power in the workplace, in a way that we haven’t seen in years. And the thing about it is, he might have co-signed the legislation, but it is not going to happen right now unless he is willing to end the filibuster. It’s just…. Talking about it is insulting to workers.
And it’s the same issue with new gun laws, with new gun rules. It’s just not going to happen right now in this Senate. So that, after every mass shooting, to be like, “Well, we need new gun laws.” That’s true, yes, but you guys are also the same people functionally blocking it, because you’re insisting on a threshold that you know you can’t meet.
I think it’s very insulting to people. Look at what happened this year: There was a huge groundswell that took place in Georgia, where people organized like hell to flip two Senate seats to give Democrats this majority, so that Joe Biden could pass an agenda into law. And right now it’s June, and they’ve passed one bill; it’s just your one major bill.
There’s a fundamental disconnect between what the party says, and then how it actually governs in power. And it’s not a new issue, but it’s one that I think is just really, really hard to get around.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Andrew Perez; he’s senior editor and reporter at the Daily Poster; they’re online at DailyPoster.com. Andrew Perez, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
AP: Thank you.