Joe Manchin: Is the West Virginia Senator a bigger obstacle for Democrats than the filibuster? Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Democrats and the f-word

Is scrapping the filibuster really in Democrats’ best interests?

There’s an easy way to gauge levels of frustration among progressives in Washington: how often are they using the f-word? The more things aren’t going their way, the more likely Democrats are to talk about the filibuster, the arcane Senate rule that prevents most legislation from passing unless it can command 60 votes.

Filibuster chatter was everywhere this week, suggesting the early honeymoon period which saw Joe Biden in lockstep with the left wing of his party is over. Even as they pass a $1.9 trillion economic support package, Democrats are coming to terms with how little they will be able to get done in a 50-50 Senate they control with the Vice-President’s tie-breaking vote.

The first reminder came last week when Senate officials ruled that a federal minimum wage hike could not be passed through budget reconciliation (a mechanism that allows for one bill per year affecting spending and revenue to be passed by a simple majority). Other parts of the Biden agenda will soon run aground too: legislation on climate change, voting rights, immigration, protections for LGBT rights and more is doomed as long as it requires 60-votes for a bill to make it through the Senate.

It’s no surprise, then, that calls to scrap the filibuster are growing louder. Amy Klobuchar, a moderate from Minnesota tweeted that it was time to “get rid of the filibuster” on Wednesday, a sign that it is not just the party’s left-wing that supports the move. Meanwhile, the White House remains poker faced.

The rights and wrongs of the filibuster — whether it encourages compromise and legislation for which their is durable support or whether it just deepens the intransigence and bitterness that plague American politics — will be vigorously debated in the coming weeks and months. But one question is unlikely to receive the scrutiny it deserves: would it actually be in Democrats’ interests to scrap it?

These days, the prevailing Democratic account of American politics is of an egregiously unfair fight. An anti-majoritarian constitution and electoral system, they argue, give the Republicans a big advantage when it comes to winning both the White House and control of the Senate. (While it is true that Republicans outperform Democrats in less populous states, and therefore turn votes into representation in Washington, there is nothing preordained or permanent about that dynamic.) But if Democrats see themselves as systematically disadvantaged in the race to 50 Senate seats, you might think they would think twice before dramatically increasing the prize for the winning side.

In the short-term, scrapping the filibuster (which, confusingly, can be done with a simple majority) would give Biden’s agenda hope. But at what long-term cost? Democrats try to square this circle by arguing that their policies would be such an overwhelming success that more and more voters would flock to their cause, and that once they can pass legislation to level the electoral playing field, they can improve their chances. That seems a Quixotic strategy.

It’s also worth noting that there aren’t even 50 Democratic votes in favour of some of the measures that many Democrats are frustrated to see hit the buffers. The increase to the federal minimum wage was opposed by two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin and Kristen Sinema. (Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate and a man who prides himself on his independence, is sure to scupper many more majorities to come.) Biden’s immigration bill doesn’t even have the votes in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. So it isn’t obvious that Democrats stand as much to gain in the short-term as they may think.

And Manchin’s answer on whether he would vote to scrap the filibuster? “Never.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover