The Filibuster: a Necessary Practice for American Democracy, or a Relic of a Racist Past?



America is in a state of paralysis. The House of Representatives is controlled by the Democratic Party by a handful of votes while the Senate is perfectly balanced in a 50-50 tie, often broken by the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. In normal times, Democrats would brag about having obtained a trifecta in the last elections, having conquered the White House and the majority in both the branches of the American Parliament, but since these aren't normal times, Democrats don't really have anthing to be happy about.


The filibuster


Boycotting the progressive agenda of President Joe Biden is a parliamentary rule that makes the opposition very powerful and can jeopardize the scheduling of laws that takes place at the hands of the Senate Majority Leader, the most important figure of the Upper House of Congress. This is the filibuster, a mechanism available to senators from the opposition benches who can invoke it in the face of any law to obstruct parliament. By asking to speak on a topic, senators can start a discussion without time limits, even indefinitely, consequently blocking the legislative process.


To overcome this obstacle, it is enough to approve a motion to close the discussion, but to do so the majority must be composed of a minimum number of 60 senators. This tool was designed not only to recognize the vital importance of the opposition, but also to encourage the drafting of bipartisan laws. In recent years, however, it has been used as a deterrent to the legislative initiative of the majority.


What is happening?


In the last couple of months the Democratic Senate Leadership has made it clear that they would like to nuke the filibuster, to make it easier for their agenda to pass. Many prominent political figures in the party have expressed criticism about the system and have called for its removal. Many Democrats think that the filibuster is, in fact, a "Vestige of Jim Crow" as former President Obama called it, echoed by Bernie Sanders: "It is a scandal that the poll tax, gerrymandering and other forms of electoral suppression still exist today."


Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your stance, Democrats don't seem to have the votes necessary to abolish the filibuster. There is, in fact, a group of Democratic Senators, led by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senior Senator Kyrsten Sinema, that is opposed to the idea of removing the system. It is their opinion that it would only increase political polarization and kill once and for all bipartisanship in the country.


“Instability, party politics and populism continue to contaminate our politics. The solution, however, is not to continue undermining our democracy. If we removed the Senate's 60-vote threshold, we would lose far more than we would gain, ”said Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, thus dismissing the possibility of introducing a reform.


American people don't want to remove the filibuster either. As a Monmouth poll published a couple of weeks ago shows, citizens' opinion on the matter is practically monolithic. In the poll, 76% of respondents would like the filibuster to be kept.


For a long time - and in truth it still is - it has been said that the only effective presidential republic is the American one. All the other countries that have conformed to the US model, particularly in Latin America, have shown major limitations. The checks and balances, the bipartisan spirit and the enviable longevity of the parties, despite the emergent rise of the "imperial presidency", have allowed the US to become, over the centuries, the strongest and most stable democracy on the planet. Today this record is breaking down. Americans have no faith in their political representatives and the two main political forces are experiencing diametrically opposed historical moments.


The increase in the use of the filibuster, at the root of Dem's frustration, is a phenomenon that is actually independent from Trump and follows previous logics. The conservative revolution of Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, contributed to the construction of insurmountable ideological walls which, during the Obama era, became even more rigid.


But is bipartisanship really dead in the US?

My answer is no, bipartisanship is not dead and it is actually, in my opinion, the only way of stopping extremist forces from growing and taking the lead of one of the two major parties. An example that proves my point is the Infrastructure bipartisan bill. Of course there is some criticism form both the parties in play, but this bill shows that it is still possible to find a middle road, it is still possible to write a decent bill together and it is still possible to seat at the same table, and Senators should choose that over party line and political convenience. It is also a way to block insane, heavily-partisan and unpopular bills to pass.


Should we keep the filibuster?


Yes, we should keep the filibuster. I totally understand Democrats' anger in seeing their agenda and bills continuously dying in the Senate, seeing that they're not obtaining wat they voted for. But we should think on a long-term basis. Were the filibuster abolished, the opposition would become powerless and, by consequence, millions of people would not get anything of what they voted for, causing increased political polarization and anger. Without the filibuster the Senate Majority would hold an incredible power of passing the President's entire agenda with enough party line-loyalty. I don't think Democrats would like to see ACA repealed or other unpopular GOP policies passing. As Sen. Sinema said: "there's more to lose than there's to gain".


Alessandro B. Carelli