Majority leaders are abusing the filibuster
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently suggested that “Americans can cast their vote in November for senators or members of Congress that reflect how he or she stands with guns.” Schumer also stated that he will not bring gun control legislation to the floor anytime soon, citing Republican resistance. Instead, it looks like the bipartisan compromise offered by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) will head to the floor.
But it’s clear that the filibuster provides a useful scapegoat for Senate Democrats when they cannot, or will not, whip additional votes or modify proposals. When bills fail to pass, majority leaders can then paint the minority as obstructionists who have stymied progress. In turn, they can claim that voters must elect more candidates from the majority party.
The majority can advance key pieces of legislation without relying on a supermajority. Yet leadership has been unwilling to employ those methods, citing several problems. They have been resistant to altering or eliminating the filibuster as well. Instead, leaders have opted to move various priorities through budget reconciliation, an alternative legislative process that does not require a supermajority. They have also packed proposals into must-pass legislation such as the omnibus appropriations bill or have chosen to punt various priorities into the future.
Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) are often viewed as the main party impediments to advancing Democrats’ policy goals. But it is unlikely they are the only members who have concerns about some of the bills the party has put forward. Their resistance protects other members from the more centrist wing of the Democratic Party, such as Sens. Jon Tester (MT) and Mark Kelly (AZ), from having to defy party leadership.
Knowing a bill will not pass allows members to toe the party line when their true preference may be to act otherwise. Conversely, it also allows senators to defect from the party in the name of appearing bipartisan without actually engaging in meaningful bipartisan behavior. For this reason, though the filibuster is often blamed for inaction, eliminating it is unlikely to lead to a marked increase in policy output as one might assume with a lower vote threshold.
For example, the 2013 Manchin-Toomey bill, which required background checks on all commercial gun sales, failed 54-46. Four Republicans supported the bill and five Democrats opposed it, including one Democratic nay vote for procedural purposes. Knowing the bill would not receive 60 votes allowed senators to take a position on the issue for campaign purposes, but if their votes were to carry more weight, there’s no guarantee they would have voted the same way.
Importantly, blaming the filibuster in these cases also obscures accountability, as voters cannot be sure who deserves blame for congressional inaction. Democratic leadership might argue that Republicans are the primary culprits while simultaneously not exploiting the tools at their disposal. Therefore, when voters cast their ballots for candidates in the hopes of facilitating the passage of certain policies, they may ultimately be disappointed with the outcome.
Increasing transparency, decentralizing power in both chambers, and empowering committees would be much more effective means of getting proposals on the floor that will pass.