Obama and the Pandora’s Box of the Filibuster


Does the former president’s proposal to do away with the filibuster risk deepening the polarization of voices?

The morning of July 30 was marked by a particularly explosive departure for the president of the United States. In a tweet, he called for a postponement of the Nov. 3 election. President Donald Trump’s statement elicited so much attention and concern that they pushed a departure from norms later made by his predecessor into the background, the blowback of which could, perhaps, be just as decisive, if not more.

During the funeral of the late congressman and civil rights champion John Lewis, Barack Obama explicitly called for the abolition of the filibuster for the first time. It is a congressional rule that seems harmless, but has extremely significant implications.

Briefly summarized, the filibuster allows for the blockage of a bill in the U.S. Senate if it fails to obtain a supermajority of at least 60 votes. Unlike the House of Representatives, where a simple majority of more than 50% is enough to pass a law, the Senate places the higher bar of a minimum of three-fifths for passage.

The idea is simple: Since it is historically rare for a political party, especially in the last few decades, to hold 60 seats, just about any major bill must be subject to a minimum of compromises between the two parties. For instance, even if the Republican Party controls the White House and holds the majority in the two chambers of Congress, the Democratic minority maintains the power of negotiation in the Senate.

This example is not merely hypothetical, as it is precisely what happened in the first two years of Trump’s presidency. It is also what occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush when the Democrats, which then held a minority in the Senate, leaned heavily on the filibuster as a means of obstruction. Among the harshest defenders of the practice at the time was one junior senator from Illinois, Obama.

However, the political winds have shifted so strongly since the beginning of the Trump presidency that Democrats have high hopes of finding themselves in control of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives after the November election. In which case, they would love to have free rein to govern.

The consequences of such a shift would be profound, not just for the policy platform of the party in power, but also for the political system and, more broadly, American society.

Tool of Obstruction or Safeguard?

The first argument of those in favor of abolishing the filibuster largely revolves around the unhealthy or abusive way it is used. It’s true that it owes its unfortunate reputation to repeated and excessive use in the 20th century to block federal legislation on civil rights.

Then, its frequency exploded at the end of the last century, contributing to the torpedoing of major reforms during the last four presidencies. What is the point of holding an election if no one is in a position to legislate after the fact? How is a system democratic when a majority of senators representing a minority of voters can block everything?

Still, if this rule is a source of many frustrations, it also offers certain protections relative to the partisan impulses that could seriously disrupt the political and social structure. In a country so diverse, and a political system so polarized where the two major parties are ideologically very far apart, what happens when one of them can make and break the rules with no consideration for the other? What happens when the other, once back in power after four years, can unilaterally impose changes just as radical in the opposite direction?

Of course, those on the left who were once at the helm will be able to give more power to the unions and clamp down on the oil industry. But when inevitably, their opponents on the right take power again, they will then have to prepare themselves to see abortion banned after 20 weeks of pregnancy and Social Security privatized — and on and on it will go.

While the decisive votes are currently held by the more moderate senators on both sides, who are also the most liable to lend their support to the opposing party, abolishing the filibuster risks marginalizing the most sober voices. In contrast, the most radical voices of the two parties will see themselves emboldened, no longer obliged to solicit the slightest support from opponents who do not already subscribe to their cause.

Certainly, this ultimate tool of compromise currently renders any will to legislate in Washington difficult. But isn’t it preferable to deepening the polarization that its demise would bring about?

If Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and his party sweep the election in November as current polls lead us to believe, this will undoubtedly be a debate the new president will not be able to avoid. His former boss, Obama, has just assured the pressure will be at its peak.

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About Reg Moss 43 Articles
Reg is a writer, teacher and translator with an interest in social issues especially as pertains to education and matters of race, class, gender, immigrant status, etc. He is currently based in Chicago.

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