Proclaiming himself “tired of being quiet,” President Biden on Tuesday proposed retiring the filibuster — the 60-vote threshold for getting almost anything through the Senate — for a narrow category related to the core mechanics of our elections. Under his exception, a bare majority of the 50-50 split Senate could pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore the federal government’s authority to review some state voting laws to prevent discrimination, and a broader bill creating national rules for voting by mail, early voting and the like.
Unless democracy itself can be preserved and protected, goes the argument, nothing else matters, so a carveout is warranted.
We agree that state legislatures’ partisan gerrymandering and restrictions on the franchise are indeed pernicious, partisan thumbs on the scale. But be careful what you wish for: If Republicans narrowly regain control of the Senate in this November’s elections, Democrats’ current howl about protecting the will of their majority will immediately be turned on its head, as they’ll have fewer votes but represent millions more people. Imagine a Senate with 51 Republicans, Mitch McConnell in charge, and a new principle established that the 49 Dems can be summarily ignored.
In this case, even if Republicans were to show a glimmer of humility and accept Biden’s chosen carveout, one can easily imagine grave harm done: New laws requiring all voters present picture ID at the polling place and onerous rules to combat largely imaginary voter fraud.
The better answer for Democrats is to follow the wise advice of congressional scholar Norm Ornstein: Restore the true intent of the filibuster. Require 41 senators to maintain an exhausting, logistically complicated, all-eyes-on-them talk-fest in order to block passage of legislation.
Today, in a rejection of the better part of our history, the mere threat of invoking the filibuster is the same as actually going through the grueling motions. Rescue the will of the majority by making the minority work a hell of a lot harder, under klieg lights.