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American Forum - National | 04/02/2021
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A Gen Z Perspective on the Filibuster

By Ben Goldberg [Right click camera icon to download a high-resolution photo of this author.]

Imagine: It's election night, Tuesday, November 8, 2022. As election results come in, it is looking increasingly likely that Republicans will take control of the House and Senate. Democrats are trying to figure out why this happened -- after all, they spent the midterms airing ads all about how dangerous right-wing conspiracy theories are and how horrible it is that Republicans support them. There's a simple answer to why Democrats lost: they have spent the last two years passing incremental half-measures that do not change the lives of any Americans and that do not make the country better.

Now imagine the same night, November 8, 2022. Democrats have spent the last two years passing voting rights legislation, passing climate legislation, making D.C. a state, raising the minimum wage, reversing systemic racism, reforming immigration policy, and so much more. The average American is earning more money at a great job -- maybe a job that is part of the newly created Civilian Climate Corps? Because of this legislation, Democrats sweep the 2022 midterms and secure a large majority in both the House and Senate so they can pass even more transformative legislation.

What is the difference between these two scenarios? It's simple: the filibuster. The filibuster is a weakened and arcane Senate procedure inspired by Aaron Burr and enacted in 1806. Under the filibuster, if even one senator does not want to pass a bill, they can stop the bill from being voted on and require 60 votes to "invoke cloture" and move the bill along. In other words, using the filibuster is basically saying "we know we're going to lose, so we're just going to stop this bill from being voted on." Obviously, none of the aforementioned progressive policies will pass the Senate with the filibuster in place -- there is no way 10 Republicans would vote, for example, to raise the minimum wage or pass transformative legislation stopping the climate crisis and ensuring a livable future for everyone. It benefits Republicans to block these bills -- Democrats campaigned on change, and if they cannot bring about that change, they will get voted out for breaking their promises.

Is the filibuster set in stone? No! The filibuster has been reformed before. For example, with just a majority vote, Harry Reid (the former Democratic majority leader) removed the filibuster for all nominations except the Supreme Court in 2013 using something called the "nuclear option".

If the filibuster can be abolished easily, why didn't Republicans abolish the filibuster when they had control of government in 2017? There is a process called budget reconciliation that lets budget-related bills pass the Senate with a simple majority vote. Republicans used budget reconciliation for their 2017 tax cut and Democrats are using it now for COVID-19 relief, but its scope is very limited under the "Byrd Rule", which limits what provisions are allowed in a budget reconciliation bill. Conveniently for Republicans, some of their greatest priorities (financial policies) are allowed under the rule, but most progressive priorities (for example, immigration and climate policies) are not allowed under the rule. One of the main arguments moderate Democrats make against abolishing the filibuster is that Republicans will just use unchecked power against Democrats if they take control of government. However, there are two major flaws to that argument. First, if Republicans take control of the Senate, they can just abolish the filibuster themselves. Second, if Democrats do abolish the filibuster and pass legislation with major popular support, Republicans will not win control of government for a long time.

There are also alternatives to fully abolishing the filibuster -- for example, Democrats could make an exemption for every bill that they want to pass, like the For the People Act, a crucial voting rights bill which recently passed the House, or the Washington, D.C. Admission Act (S. 51), a bill to make D.C. a state which passed the House in 2019. This could be easily accomplished by saying something like "the vote on cloture under rule XXII for the Washington, D.C. Admission Act is by majority vote," like what Harry Reid did in 2013.

As a 13-year-old looking at the government not doing anything to stop the destruction of our future, I see the need to pass transformative legislation now. Will we let the filibuster stand in the way of preserving our home and protecting our future?

What are we waiting for? This is our moment -- let's abolish the filibuster!

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Ben Goldberg, an eighth grader, lives in Durham, NC, and is an active member of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.

 
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