Abolishing the Filibuster May Have Unintended Consequences

In the wake of Democrats winning the House, Senate and White House, progressives frustrated with the slow pace of legislative reforms have encouraged the Senate to abolish the filibuster. This tactic unique to the U.S. Senate, which has been used more frequently in recent years, allows any senator to indefinitely stall debate on a bill, motion or nomination. A cloture vote, the only way to end a filibuster, requires 60 senators to vote in favor of ending debate on a legislative item. The difficulty of obtaining this supermajority essentially allows the minority party to obstruct the majority’s agenda.

It is understandable why the boldest Democrats would seek to do away with this tradition: President Joe Biden’s agenda includes many monumental changes, most notably in healthcare, climate change, gun control, immigration and electoral reform, and many Democrats are eager to deliver after having taken control of the Senate. 

None of these legislative packages, which would be the most sweeping liberal changes to the federal government since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society or Roosevelt’s New Deal, would be likely to garner the 60 votes needed for cloture in the evenly-split Senate. Republicans, therefore, could easily stymie Biden’s agenda for the next four years using the filibuster, gutting every major Democratic priority.

Completely abolishing the filibuster, therefore, seems viable to prevent Republicans from obstructing liberal reform through filibuster. Democrats, however, should be wary of this option: its long-term downsides for the party far outweigh any gains they could make over the next four years. 

Should Democrats abolish the filibuster, it remains unclear whether their ambitious legislative agenda would be any more successful in Congress. Given the current breakdown of the Senate, every single Democratic senator must vote for a bill in order for it to pass. Yet, there are several senators in the party who have shown a willingness to buck the party line. 

Eight Democratic senators, for example, voted against a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour during the vote on the most recent Covid-19 relief package. Likewise, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s decision not to back Biden’s nominee to lead the Budget Office significantly contributed to her nomination being withdrawn. Meanwhile, despite wide bipartisan support, Biden’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack received seven votes against his confirmation, including former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. 

These defections demonstrate the fine line that the Biden administration must walk to pass its legislation: any legislation that is too moderate may result in defections from progressive Democratic senators, and legislation that is too extreme will likewise result in moderate defections. Abolishing the filibuster will not fix this problem. Bills will still require a simple majority to pass. As such, many of Biden’s boldest proposals, such as a public health insurance option or environmental plan, would likely still fail even without the filibuster in the way.

Abolishing the filibuster would also have long-term ramifications for Democrats. The Senate, which allocates an equal number of seats to states regardless of their population, gives disproportionate power to smaller, rural states that increasingly vote Republican: California, for example, has 68 times the population of Wyoming, but an equal number of Senate seats. The result is that, as rural areas become more conservative and urban areas become more liberal, the U.S. Senate will increasingly favor Republicans.

At a certain point, Democrats will be hard-pressed to win majorities in the Senate, even if they hold resounding popular vote majorities nationwide. In the long term, one could expect the Senate to be led by Republicans far more often than by Democrats. Should the filibuster be abolished today, Republicans over the coming decades will be able to pass all manner of reforms undesirable to Democrats, who will not have a filibuster to stop them.

Recent history provides a sample of the scope of this issue. In 2013, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ended the use of the filibuster for nominations for federal judges and other political appointees. While this allowed Democrats to confirm three of then-President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees against stiff Republican opposition, this quickly backfired on Democrats when they lost control of the Senate in 2015 and the White House in 2017.

Without a filibuster for federal nominees, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was able to confirm 226 federal judges nominated by President Donald Trump in just four years. Obama and President George W. Bush, who each held office for eight years, appointed just 320 and 322 judges in their terms, respectively.

The expeditious pace by which McConnell confirmed often-unqualified, partisan judges to federal courts has already reshaped the federal judiciary. By removing the filibuster altogether, Democrats risk giving McConnell and the Republican senators free reign when they retake the majority, providing more extreme right-wing senators the opportunity to pass detrimental legislation.

Democrats should not make Mitch McConnell’s job easier for him. Abolishing the filibuster will do just that, without any guarantee of passing Biden’s bold agenda in return.

Instead, Democrats can use their narrow control of the Senate to pass sensible policies on issues that could garner Republican support: a reduction in drug prices and raising the minimum wage in a less radical fashion have bipartisan support. Such policies would deliver on the promises Democrats made to their voters last year, improve the lives of millions of Americans, and can be accomplished without abolishing the filibuster.

Joe Biden ran for president on a message of unity. His administration’s policies and the Senate controlled by his party should reflect that as they consider the future of the filibuster.