As you all know, the big issue for me in the 2020 Democratic Primary is which of the nominees support abolishing the filibuster if we are to get progressive legislation passed. I am very happy to see this issue gain momentum and kudos to John Oliver for shedding a light on this:
Last Week Tonight finally came back from mini-hiatus on Sunday, blessedly relieving a nation’s backed-up outrage with a freeing torrent of ingeniously rapid-fire comic catharsis from John Oliver. This week’s main topic was the filibuster, that Senate tactic from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington where a lone Senator heroically talks himself into brain-melting exhaustion until the rest of that body finally comes to its senses and does the right thing. Or, as Oliver lays out, Ted Cruz tries to prevent millions of Americans from getting healthcare by ruining Dr. Seuss forever, Rand Paul attempts to block one of President Obama’s nominees by sloppily eating fun-size candy bars like a sleepy toddler, and, back in the day, world champion racist Strom Thurmond fights the Civil Rights Act by pissing in a bucket. You know, democracy.
Oliver explained that such Fear Factor-esque stunts aren’t even part of the filibuster’s appeal any more, since the Senate did away with the need to hold the floor in order to scuttle any bill without 60 votes, leaving self-described “grim reaper” Mitch McConnell (R-KY) free to turn the country’s highest legislative body into a good idea graveyard. As is his way, Oliver took the opportunity to advise the ghoulish McConnell that comparing himself to the malign specter of doom really isn’t necessary, an act akin to Donald Trump asking people to think of him as “a bunch of trash bags from a Cracker Barrel dumpster brought to life by an ancient curse when a clown fucked a car alarm.” Solid burn, but Oliver’s real point is that the filibuster—touted by one long-ago Senator as a way to protect “minorities”—only means that when “minorities” means lawmakers from a minority of states who’d like their fringe, reactionary bigotry to gum up actual progress.
Seeing the filibuster as the brick and mortar of the Senate’s gridlock, Oliver proceeded to dismantle its defenses, myth by myth. First, there’s the idea that the founding fathers designed the filibuster to help the Senate be the much-quoted “cooling saucer” to the House’s fiery debate (the term comes from an 18th century-practice of pouring hot coffee on a tea saucer to allow it to cool, then sipping it from the dish).
Oliver pointed out many holes in that story. “There is nothing about a 60-vote threshold for legislation in the constitution, nothing about it in the Federalist Papers, nothing in Jefferson’s private letters, and nothing skillfully rapped by Alexander Hamilton to the delight of everyone within earshot.” According to New York magazine, the first filibuster wasn’t used until 1837, and therefore “it was categorically not part of the founders’ original vision,” Oliver said. “It’s like claiming the day Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone he also sent the first dick pic.”
Second, the filibuster’s defenders, such as the Oklahoma senator Robert Kerr, in a video from 1952, claimed that the measure protected “minorities” and gentlemanly debate in the Senate. Never mind the fact, Oliver refuted, that senators routinely pulled guns on each other in the 19th century, or that the “minorities” referred to were political minorities – traditionally southern senators – who used the filibuster to restrict the rights of racial minorities and to block civil rights legislation. To this day, the longest speaking filibuster belongs to the notoriously racist Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who spoke against a civil rights bill in 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes straight.
The Senate stopped requiring speaking filibusters in the 1970s; now, signaling intent to filibuster is enough to stop a bill. But that hasn’t stopped senators from turning the now accessory speech into a publicity stunt; Oliver pointed to a speech delivered by Ted Cruz in 2013 to filibuster funding for the Affordable Care Act. “When you watch this, remember: the stated argument for this tactic is, it’s supposed to be a vital means of facilitating a full and robust debate,” Oliver said before playing a clip of the speech in which Cruz simply read Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs & Ham with lofty rhetorical flair.
Finally, some have argued that the filibuster encourages bipartisanship, which is clearly not the case, Oliver said, despite its increasing use. “Thanks to the filibuster, many pieces of meaningful legislation, some with bipartisan support, have died,” including a bipartisan gun control bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the public option in Obamacare.
“We’ve reached a point where senators don’t so much brag about what they’ve passed as brag about what they are going to obstruct,” Oliver lamented. So why keep the filibuster? Democratic candidates such as Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Steve Bullock have called for it to be abolished – but so has Trump. Removing the filibuster is certainly a risk given the shifting winds of power, Oliver acknowledged; the idea of giving up a potential defense against Trump’s policies is a bitter pill, but “it should not come at the cost of getting anything done”.
But filibusters don’t encourage the Senate to be a “bastion of debate,” Oliver argues. For one thing, the mythological “golden age” of the Senate being a “haven of gentlemanly debate” never really existed (a senator was almost beaten to death with a metal-topped cane on the Senate floor in the 1800s). And the supposed power that filibusters give to “minorities” in the Senate usually manifests in political minorities restricting the power of racial minorities, as Southern senators did during the Civil Rights era.
Most crucially, says Oliver, the filibusters do not encourage bipartisanship, as they were initially designed to do. Rather, they prevent key bills with bipartisan support, like gun control bills and the public option on Obamacare, from passing the Senate. And while there’s certainly a risk in getting rid of the 60-vote majority for Democrats – a similar rollback allowed Brett Kavanaugh to voted onto the Supreme Court – it may allow the Senate to actually get things done.
Joe Biden’s plan for a Public Option would pass the Senate with a simple Democratic majority but he’s not on board with abolishing the filibuster. Bernie Sanders has constantly called for a political revolution and has slammed Democrats for failing to pass a progressive agenda but he is not crazy about abolishing the filibuster. To both frontrunners’ supporters, please explain to me why I should believe that either man could achieve their goals as President if they don’t back abolish this archaic rule which has constantly killed progress? It says a lot that Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin understand this better than the top two choices for the Democratic nominee.