With COVID-19 Relief Passed, It’s Time for Democrats to Destroy the Filibuster

To fulfill his campaign promise of raising the minimum wage and safeguard the most basic elements of democracy, Joe Biden must publicly and vocally support scrapping the filibuster.

US president Joe Biden meets with Democratic senators to discuss his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan at the White House in Washington, DC, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds-Pool / Getty Images)

Last week, the Senate finally passed its massive COVID-19 relief bill. Dubbed the American Rescue Act, the bill makes serious and tangible steps toward helping the millions of Americans devastated by the pandemic by expanding thechild tax credit into a direct payment and subsidizing insurance premiums for millions of low-to-medium income Americans.

Still, infuriating compromises were made to assure the bill’s passage. Concessions to moderate Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin led to millions of Americans losing access to $1,400 direct payments, even if they qualified for the previous rounds of checks under Trump.

And, most disgustingly, the fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage increase was abandoned by Democrats after it was ruled outside the bounds of budget reconciliation by the Senate parliamentarian. By failing to fight to include the raise in this bill, Democratic leadership has essentially doomed its chance of passing under current Senate rules. Raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour would now require sixty votes to circumvent the filibuster, an unlikely prospect in the incredibly polarized Senate.

With the pressing crisis of ensuring pandemic relief out of the way, Senate Democrats now have an agenda that is relatively progressive — certainly in comparison to the party’s agenda in recent years. That agenda will not gain any Republican support. Emerging only slightly bruised from a difficult fight to pass the relief bill, Senate Democrats will now turn their attention to other popular reforms Biden campaigned on, putting them on a collision course with an entrenched Republican opposition unwilling to concede to public or moral sentiment.

In other words, Democrats are nearing a confrontation with the filibuster.

As Senators were carving out provisions in the relief bill to satisfy the whims of Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, House Democrats narrowly passed the For the People Act, a significant piece of legislation that would enfranchise millions of Americans by creating stronger national regulations on voting registration, mail-in balloting, and the restoration of voting rights to former felons. After yet another election in which Republicans attempted to undermine the basic legitimacy and mechanics of voting, the bill’s provisions are sorely needed.

Of course, as the Republicans’ decade-long campaign to undermine the 1965 Voting Rights Act has shown, conservatives consider any expansion of voting as an existential threat, a complication on their path to power that increasingly relies on minoritarian rule. Like a minimum wage increase, the bill’s chances of passing under the current Senate rules are dismal.

With COVID-19 relief out of the way, Biden must turn his attention to the fight over voting rights and the minimum wage. To fulfill his campaign promise of raising the minimum wage and safeguard the most basic elements of democracy, Biden must publicly and vocally support significant reform or abolition of the filibuster.

US president Joe Biden in the State Dining Room of the White House, 2021. (Doug Mills-Pool / Getty Images)

The moral and practical imperative of this agenda is clear. Millions of Americans are led into poverty by a federal minimum wage that has languished for over a decade. These same poor and disenfranchised people are the ones most likely to be denied their basic right to democratic participation by blatantly unfair voting practices. Any serious attempt to fix these issues will be crushed by Republicans, a party that inherently relies on class divisions and unequal representation for political survival.

These are not issues that can be successfully bargained and compromised over. They require political battles against a reactionary opposition that will not yield on these questions. That opposition must be defeated.

The arguments against the filibuster, a parliamentarian technique that effectively allows a minority group to hold control over the Senate unless overruled by a vote of sixty Senators, are blindingly obvious. The filibuster allows for a narrow minority to wield enormous control over the legislative agenda. While the technique has occasionally been deployed to noble ends, it has been principally used for deeply reactionary, antidemocratic purposes like delaying the passage of civil rights bills for decades.

As the minimum wage ruling reminded us, the Democrats’ primary method for circumventing the filibuster is narrow and ill-suited. Republicans made do with the filibuster under Trump because most of their austerity policies could be passed through budget reconciliation. To fix our democratic systems and to boost millions out of starvation wages, Democrats inherently need more legislative avenues.

There is a clear moral imperative to destroy the filibuster, but there is also a political benefit as well. The policies that risk being scuttled by the filibuster like voting reform and a $15 minimum wage are broadly popular with the public. This is not just evident in polling; last year we saw wage increases pass in purple states like Florida. There is a public enthusiasm for these policies, while you’d be hard-pressed to find a sizable constituency for Senate traditionalism outside the op-ed pages.

Rather than treating filibuster reform as a political cost, Democrats should look toward the political benefit of passing popular legislation that couldn’t otherwise be achieved. Public enthusiasm around civil rights and a living wage gives Biden a unique opportunity (and for moderate Senators, a unique point of pressure) for arguing in favor of removing the filibuster. Already, he has signaled an openness to reforming how the filibuster is used, but his interventions must be louder and bolder to sway skittish Democrats and move his party forward.

The Biden administration often describes their goals in the vein of Franklin Roosevelt, a similarly moderate politician who was pushed to the left by the cataclysmic circumstances he inherited from his predecessor. Biden’s ultimate choice, then, will be deciding which version of FDR he wants to emulate.

Will he be the FDR of popular imagination, a man of liberal principles who pushed for popular and consequential reform despite political obstacles? Or will he emulate the worst of FDR, who betrayed basic progressive goals in the name of expediency? To satisfy his campaign promises, to build a better America, and to live up to this consequential moment Biden and the Democrats must crush the undemocratic, arcane filibuster. And they must do so now.