We may well look back on 2021 as the year Democrats in Congress finally achieved the large, sweeping policy changes in areas such as health care and climate change that they have long desired. That’s because a victory in the 2020 election could open the way for them to eliminate the Senate filibuster.
The term filibuster comes from a Dutch word meaning “pirate,” and it refers to a senator who attempts to prevent a vote on the Senate floor. It emerged as a check on majority rule by giving certain rights to the minority party.
Both representatives as well as senators originally had a right to filibuster. But the House grew too large, and only the Senate opted to preserve it. For most of history a filibuster required senators to stand and speak – most famously depicted by Jimmy Stewart in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Today, the rules have evolved such that the minority party can simply declare a filibuster without ever setting foot on the Senate floor. In practice, that means a 60-vote supermajority is required to approve almost all legislation.
Some observers view the filibuster as a leading cause of congressional dysfunction, as it allows the minority party to throw sand in the gears of Congress. These days it has made legislating a nearly impossible task. Utah Rep. Rob Bishop recently castigated the filibuster as the “single greatest flaw in Washington,” worse than “polarization,” “gerrymandering,” and “money in politics.” On the other side, institutionalist defenders, such former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, have argued that the Senate was created to serve as the “world’s most deliberative body.” For him that means the majority must find compromise with at least some members of the minority party. Sen. Hatch famously led the charge to short-circuit President Trump’s call to eliminate the filibuster early in Trump’s presidency.
If Democrats eliminate the filibuster, we can expect a level of legislative activity not seen in decades. They will likely begin by enlarging their majority by granting statehood to the District of Columbia and possibly Puerto Rico (statehood requires only a majority vote in Congress). Next up is probably a major health care bill, including a Medicare buy-in or the creation of a new government-run health insurance option – likely paid for by a reversal of the Trump tax cuts. Democrats may also pursue major legislation related to climate change, citizenship for undocumented immigrants, LGBT protections, a $15 minimum wage, or stricter gun control. They may even attempt to expand the size of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Until now the filibuster has served as the bulwark to prevent such major changes from coming to pass. That’s a bad thing, according to Rep. Bishop, because it effectively “stifles policy progress.” Politicians make promises they can’t keep, and the public can never evaluate the fruits of one policy direction over another. Still, as Sen. Hatch has argued, the filibuster has spared America from Congress passing any number of dreadful, partisan bills. And who’s to say that when the other party regains control they will not turn around and undo or replace everything the prior majority has accomplished? Eliminating the filibuster may become a recipe for policy whiplash.
Just when we thought the stakes for 2020 couldn’t get any higher. A Democratic sweep in the election could pave the way for yet another significant shift that could reshape American politics.
Corey Astill handles government relations for businesses. He is a former senior advisor in the U.S. Senate and current co-host of the “Conservative Minds” podcast. He lives with his family in Lehi, Utah.