By virtually any metric, the United States Senate is one of the most undemocratic legislative bodies in the advanced capitalist world. Given the geographic distribution of America’s population, the majority living in nine states wields a mere eighteen votes to the minority’s eighty-two: a balance of forces so disproportionate, most citizens of other countries would probably find it incomprehensible. In no other country could a jurisdiction the size of California (home to nearly 40 million people) possess the same legislative clout as Wyoming (home to less than 600,000). The Senate, in fact, is not so much undemocratic as it is antidemocratic — its design acting as a check on majority rule by default.
All of this would remain the case without the chamber’s current filibuster rules in place: rules so absurdly obstructive that senators representing as little as 11 percent of the US population cannot only defeat any bill but prevent it from coming to the floor. Not without justification, this fact in particular is currently in the minds of many rank-and-file liberals and activists hoping to force Democratic leaders to actually approve the popular legislation for which some have voiced nominal support: the transformative PRO Act, health care reform, a $15 minimum wage, and democratic countermeasures to the state-level Republican assault on voting rights, to name just a few. On Friday, the Senate voted 54-35 in favor of establishing a commission to investigate the events of January 6 — an effort supported by many liberals and one destined to fail thanks to the legislature’s arcane sixty-vote requirement.
In short, the current debate surrounding the filibuster has assumed the familiar partisan character that inflects most debates in American politics. Strip away the partisan dimension, however, and the issue at hand is about as rudimentary as they come: whether elected representatives who represent a majority of Americans are empowered to make laws without the constraints imposed by an impossibly high threshold specifically designed to prevent them from doing so.
It’s as much an imminent question as an abstract or long-term one given the related battle over voting rights and the concerted effort by state-level Republicans to restrict them with bills that can be passed by a simple majority. As journalist Ari Berman points out, the legislation required to prevent voter suppression (in this case, the John Lewis Voting Rights and For the People acts) faces a much steeper climb thanks to the filibuster and its artificially imposed sixty-vote threshold. (In a morbid irony, the act of safeguarding basic democratic rights can be swatted down by a minority while the act of suffocating them in the interests of minority rule requires a majority of only 50+1.)
Elsewhere on Friday, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer announced his intention to bring the For the People Act to the floor at the end of June. If passed, the legislation would, among other things, establish automatic national voter registration, expanded mail-in voting, and independent redistricting commissions. All are incredibly popular and commonsensical measures: so much so that their right-wing opponents have reportedly been struggling to devise any message to convince even self-identified conservatives otherwise. All are also destined to fail if the arbitrary convention currently strangling Senate business is maintained.
The lesson in all of this is that ending the filibuster is not fundamentally, or not only, about passing a particular legislative agenda before the 2022 midterms. It’s about whether the most basic democratic commitments can prevail over a concerted effort to roll back voting rights and enshrine institutionalized anti-democracy in perpetuity.