With control of the Senate up for grabs next month, the Democrats have a rare opportunity to eliminate the filibuster, one of the worst and most anti-democratic features of the American political system. Democratic Senators should announce that whether or not they retain control of the chamber, they will no longer be governed by the filibuster. They should pledge that if they lose, they will not use the filibuster to block Republican legislation. If they win, they should ignore Republican filibusters.
No public policy proposal is perfect, and it is frightening to imagine a scenario in which Republicans regain control of the White House and both chambers, with the Democratic minority relinquishing its right to filibuster. That said, the elimination of the filibuster would do more good than harm and would allow Democrats to solve serious problems that will otherwise remain unresolved.
Consider that if the Democrats had eliminated the filibuster two years ago, they would have passed single-payer health care, stronger financial re-regulation, climate-change legislation, immigration reform, and card check legislation. And, they would have enacted a larger stimulus package that would have jump-started the economy and created many jobs. Because of the filibuster, none of these desperately needed measures saw the light of day.
The filibuster is anti-democratic, and allows a tiny minority of Americans to obstruct the will of the majority. More than two thirds of the public supports the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," for example, but because Susan Collins decided to filibuster legislation that included repeal language, we will continue to enforce a policy that all but the fringe now agrees is unwise. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the House of Representatives repeatedly passed anti-lynching legislation, but a minority of Southern Senators filibustered the bills time and again. A small group of Senators, in other words, was able to block federal efforts to prevent vigilante mobs from hanging black people from trees. That is the legacy of the filibuster.
But what about the scenario in which Republicans regain control of the executive and legislative branches? Wouldn't the Bush administration have wrought even more destruction if the Democrats had not been able to threaten to filibuster extreme ideas like privatizing social security.
This is indeed a frightening possibility. But progressives should have faith in the validity of their own policies, as well as the wisdom of the American people. If Republicans enact more of their agenda into law, the public will hold them accountable. This is, in effect, what happened in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Because Republican policies, in general, hurt the middle class, while progressive policies help, we should have faith that if given the opportunity to make meaningful change (which would only be possible if the filibuster were eliminated), the Democrats would be rewarded at the ballot box and the Republicans would be punished. Not every time. But more often than not.
Under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to eliminate the filibuster. This is a unique moment, however, because no one can be sure who will control the Senate after next month's election. Hence, the Democrats can credibly say that if they lose the chamber, they will not filibuster Republican legislation. That credibility, in turn, will allow them to scrap the filibuster without looking like hypocrites if they keep control of the Senate.
In some eras, stability is more beneficial than change. In others, change is more beneficial than continuity. In the current historical moment, the problems we face are so serious that everything must be done to solve them. If we want to have a small chance of keeping the seas from rising, addressing the desperation of the underclass, fixing the badly broken health care system and putting the unemployed back to work, we need to eliminate the filibuster.