Friday, March 12, 2021

Killing the Filibuster Would Not Automatically Create a Progressive Playground

The call to eliminate the Senate filibuster so Republicans cannot stymie Joe Biden’s legislative agenda is crescendoing. But it is crucially important to keep in mind that killing the filibuster does not mean Democrats automatically can turn the country into a progressive playground. 

Joe Manchin of West Virginia, indeed every senator in the Democratic caucus, would be empowered to block extreme measures. They hold the key to passage of each piece of legislation as Republican opposition would be expected to be solidly against any Biden plan. Without unanimous approval by the Democratic caucus, and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, nothing would get passed. But at least the hurdle would be satisfying senators with Democratic values, not Republican negativism. 

“Give a little, get a little” is thought to be a tradition of the U.S. Senate. Compromise. Or as the deposed leader called it, the art of the deal. Maybe 20 to 30 or more years ago, but compromise today is a political state of affairs at best non palatable, at most anathema, to die-hard senators of both political parties.

To accomplish anything, Chuck Schumer, the first Jewish Senate majority leader, would do well to reflect on an old saying from his ancestral heritage—haba lehargecha, hashcame lehargo. Roughly translated: If someone is coming to kill you, get up early to kill him first. It’s a variant on the golden rule—do unto others before they do “it” to you.

What is the “it” I am referring to? “It” is eliminating the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to end debate in the Senate. Get rid of it before Republican leader Mitch McConnell does it to you next time the GOP controls the Senate with less than 60 senators.   

If you doubt McConnell’s intentions to do away with the filibuster if it benefits conservatives you haven’t been paying attention for the last decade when Republican senators operated under his leadership. McConnell’s loyalty to Senate tradition runs only as deep as his need to follow precedent if it pushes a right wing agenda. Given the fact that the filibuster was an ad-hoc invention by southerners in the early 1800s to protect slavery, and after the Civil War deny civil rights to minorities, McConnell could easily justify killing the filibuster if such action advanced his causes. 

Don’t expect any of McConnell’s potential successors to be more responsive to the needs of working and middle class families and people of color.

Republicans are aghast that Democrats enacted a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package without any of their votes, as if they are practitioners of bi-partisanship. Their crocodile tears mask the reality that McConnell used the same reconciliation tactic without any Democratic votes to push through their $1.9 trillion tax cut bill that benefitted the wealthy and corporations. Good for the goose, good for the gander.

Though he had his reservations about the pandemic relief bill, Manchin exacted sufficient compromises to cast an affirmative vote. Perhaps at this moment it would be instructive to consider the state of the state of West Virginia. Here’s how U.S. News & World Report ranked the Mountain State compared to the 49 others:

Health Care—48th





Fiscal Stability—34th

Crime and Corrections—21st

Natural Environment—41st

Overall, the state ranked 47th. For a more detailed explanation (i.e., Natural Environment does not mean mountains and lakes but rather air and water quality plus pollution), link to the magazine’s report:

West Virginia ranks 50th in life span. While its minimum wage is $8.75 compared to the federal standard of $7.25, it is hardly a living wage for anyone working 40 hours a week ($18,200 a year). 

While not a resident of Manchin’s state, I would be stunned to discover how Biden’s relief program and future plans for infrastructure improvements would not benefit West Virginians. Legislation to safeguard voting rights for minorities, enhance environmental protections and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour are three areas Manchin and all other Democrats should embrace.  

But passage of these initiatives requires doing away with the filibuster. It must be done forthwith, for Democrats cannot be certain they will retain majorities in either chamber of Congress post 2022. 

Howls will come from the right. At the state level Republicans are actively working to restrict voting rights.

For Biden and his hair-thin majorities in the House and Senate it’s now or probably never to effect real change.