The Filibuster’s Most Devilish Trick

The filibuster’s value as a political alibi was fittingly demonstrated last month when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Democrats that Republicans would restrict abortion, end sanctuary cities, and pass other horrors in their next Congress in retaliation if the filibuster were abolished. This amounted to an admission that the campaign season promises Republicans make to implement these ideas are a long con. As much as they might tell their voters they want to pass them, Senate Republicans know they have no way of doing so without the filibuster’s elimination—which would help Democrats—and they might not really want to enact much of that agenda anyway given the substantive extremity of their proposals and the likelihood that they would set off a political backlash. So, unsurprisingly, Republicans did little more with full control of Congress under Trump than pass tax cuts and appoint judges. The rest was implicitly punted to a future, entirely hypothetical Republican Congress with either a post-filibuster Senate or a filibuster-proof Senate supermajority.

The hope that legislative impasses might be solved with more seats animates voters on both sides of the aisle—by donating more money, spending more time canvassing and phone banking, and bringing more people to the polls even for long-shot candidates well outside of purple territory, they’re told that the failed promises of the last campaign will finally come to fruition the next time around. The burden of honoring these pledges falls not on the candidates who made them in the first place—all of whom, voters are assured, are trying their very best to bring ambitious policies to pass⁠—but on voters themselves. But the actual obstacle to the passage of major legislation in Congress, in a political environment where Senate supermajorities are becoming less and less possible, is the filibuster, and winning any majority short of 60 seats is functionally useless for most significant bills unless the party caucuses are willing to kill it.

That reality shapes political discourse in subtle and underappreciated ways. On Monday, The New York Times’ Nate Cohn published a column warning readers about the threat that rising sectarianism poses to the American political system. “It’s not a term usually used in discussions about American politics,” he wrote. “It’s better known in the context of religious sectarianism—like the hostility between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq. Yet a growing number of eminent political scientists contend that political sectarianism is on the rise in America.”

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