By Ivory Phillips
JA Contributing Editor
Millions of Americans are delighted that Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed, the $1.9 trillion COVID Relief Bill into law. According to many public opinion polls, somewhere in the neighborhood of 75% of the population likes the idea. These include Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.
Many of these citizens may not even realize that absolutely no Republicans in the Senate or the House voted in favor of the bill. They simply do not pay that much attention to the everyday actions of Congress. That, in and of itself, is bad. Even worse, however, is the fact that the passage of that bill may be the first and last such bill that gets through the Senate. That is the case because the Senate is so evenly divided between the Democrats and Republicans and that the Republicans are dead-set on blocking major proposals of Biden and the Democrats. The COVID Relief Package was only able to pass because the budget reconciliation procedure was used rather than the usual procedure.
Under normal conditions, the minority, in this case the Republicans, would be able to use the filibuster rule to block any bills it opposes. In these cases, it may not be minority rule, but it is minority power over the passing of legislation.
As we have indicated in previous articles, the filibuster rule is undemocratic and is a relic of the pre-civil rights days. It, nevertheless, remains entrenched and is a threat to any progressive legislation, no matter how many Americans may want such legislation.
As readers peruse this article, they will see the problem. Four examples can serve to under-score the situation.
Last year, the House passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill, which was designed to restore many of the provisions and the true spirit of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But the bill remained bottled-up in the Senate because Republicans, who controlled the Senate, were opposed to it. (The bill is now called the We the People bill.)
With the Democrats now in charge of the Senate, the Republican minority is likely to filibuster the bill to death. If that happens, voter suppression bills passed in many states will deter and not prevent thousands of voters in those states from being able to vote. It will lead to untold numbers of state
and federal officials not being elected as would have been the case in free and fair elections. Because it targets Black voters, in particular, it takes us back to the Jim Crow days. Not just Blacks, however, it will disenfranchise many others who are progressive-minded.
The death of the John Lewis Voting Rights bill and the subsequent denial of the right to vote is thus exhibit number one for why it is urgent to get rid of the current Senate filibuster rule. History has already shown how Black men had the right to vote taken from them, ending Reconstruction. It will surely repeat itself if Democrats are not willing to get rid of the filibuster today.
Exhibit number two may well be the George Floyd Police Reform bill. Republican politicians are not only opposed to the bill. They used it as a campaign booster during the 2020 election cycle. They want nothing to do with the bill and will, like the John Lewis bill, either filibuster it to death or water it down so much until it is meaningless. Black victims of police violence will continue to multiply if there is not sufficient pressure to get rid of the filibuster.
A third exhibit of what is likely to be lost if the filibuster is not gotten rid of is any effective effort to reform or expand the federal judiciary. Beginning with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to schedule hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, it has been clear that former President Donald Trump and the Republicans were trying to stack the federal courts in favor of conservatives. The move be-came so obvious, as many jurists were appointed who were clearly unfit or otherwise unqualified. Anticipating a swing in the opposite direction if Biden was elected president, Vice President Mike Pence insisted that Democrats say whether they would “stack the courts” in such a case.
That is what should happen in order to restore and protect various aspects of American democratic policies and practices, including voting rights, legalized abortions, Obamacare, and immigrants’ rights, among others. If there is no expansion of the courts, many progressive laws and executive orders can and will likely be declared unconstitutional.
Before we get to the reality of expanding the courts, how-ever, there has to be enabling legislation to do so. Republican senators are likely to oppose such through the filibuster rule. Therefore, for the third time, we must say that unless the filibuster is gotten rid of, judicial reform will not happen and much of the Biden agenda and other progressive measures will either never see the light of day or have only a short life before falling before the courts.
Democrats are in a tight squeeze because they are the majority only because Vice President Kamala Harris can give them a 51st vote when needed. This brings us to the fourth exhibit for getting rid of the filibuster.
Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico need to be admitted to the Union as states. On the one hand, they should be admitted because they deserve it, given their history and current political predicament of their residents. On the other hand, they should be admitted in order to protect and advance progressive and democratic policies beneficial to every-body. Such a move would more than likely add four senators to the Democratic side of the aisle, making it easier to get Biden’s agenda and other progressive legislation passed. As the adage goes, elections should have consequences.
In order to get to the point of admitting D.C. and Puerto Rico to statehood, however, the necessary legislation must get past the filibuster. The Republican minority is not likely to let that happen as long as they can filibuster it to death.
Everything that has been advanced above is clearly understood by President Joe Biden and VP Kamala Harris, both of whom served in the Senate prior to being elected to head the Executive Branch. They both know that the filibuster rule is an anti-democratic relic that should be changed. They both know that the Republican leaders have not been hesitant to change the filibuster rule in the past and would not hesitate to change
it in the future, if it meant that they would gain a political advantage. They both know that attempts at bi-partisanship with the current Republican leaders would mean watering-down proposals to such an extent that they would become meaningless or insignificant.
What, then, is Biden’s hesitation to advocate changing the Senate filibuster rule? It seems that he does not want to give the appearance of “telling the Senate how to run its house.” That may be well and good, but surely the Democratic senatorial leaders can act on their own if they want to shield the president and vice president from such criticism. The executives could just remain mum on the question and let those leaders act. Second, it seems that another reason for the hesitancy may be because at least two Democratic senators – Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – do not want to support a move to get rid of the filibuster. If that is the case, the Biden administration, along with Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House, should find an effective way to persuade them otherwise. Such has happened in other administrations in the past. It can happen again.
This brings us to the pressure that needs to come from the voters, individually and through groups. Realizing all that is at stake if the Senate filibuster remains in-tact, citizens need to make their voices heard in the ears of the media, the ears of Biden and other Democratic leaders, and in the ears of Sinema and Manchin. The majority had spoken on November 6th and through the polls. That voice needs to be re-emphasized now in order to get rid of this major obstacle that prevents majority rule on these and other such critical issues.