The Senate may be a legislative graveyard, but debate is not yet dead in the US

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Greg Nash

The world’s least deliberative body — the United States Senate — could not cobble together enough votes to even begin a debate on a commission to investigate the insurrection and riot at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6.

Let me repeat, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his willing caucus refused to allow the measure to come to the floor of the Senate. 

This, despite the fact that four former leaders of the Department of Homeland Security — two Democrats and two Republicans — implored the Senate to act. The former Bush and Obama officials asked the Senate to “put politics aside and create a bipartisan, independent 9/11-style commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol.”

And this, despite the fact that two in three Americans support the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the causes of that violent day.

All signs now unmistakably indicate that bipartisan consensus around the core issues of accountability and democracy is now officially dead. 

But do you know where bipartisan consensus and desire for action isn’t dead? It’s not dead in the United States of America.

From the 1/6 Commission to the Biden Administration’s COVID Relief Package to a proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package to a sweeping American Families Plan, large numbers of Democrats, Independents and Republicans support these measures.   

And let’s take the transformational reform bill that is currently awaiting action in the Senate that would do more to restore faith in our system of government than anything else in over 50 years.  S.1 — the For the People Act — has overwhelming bipartisan support across the United States. From Arizona to Maine, from Florida to Alaska, everywhere you look, Democrats, Republicans and Independents are craving creative solutions to fix a democracy they believe is broken.

Five years ago, former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson said of sweeping reforms in places as diverse as Maine, California, and Montana, that ideas like exposing dark money and adopting clean elections systems “are not controversial anywhere except in the corridors of power in Washington. It’s certainly not a partisan issue, either, because Americans from all political parties are patriots who simply want government to work the way it was designed by our Founders.”

Yes, the blame, once again, falls to McConnell. And he should be condemned for being the single most destructive obstructionist in American history. But in the case of the For the People Act, Democrats need only to temporarily suspend the filibuster for this measure to proceed and receive a vote. 

The filibuster is not sacrosanct. It is not the Arc of the Covenant. It is not some sacred object demanding that supplicants genuflect at its altar.It’s not even mentioned in the United States Constitution and was seldom used for most of America’s history.

It is a rule of the Senate. It was created by mortal, fallible human beings, and has been amended and changed countless times in its history. Congress created 161 exceptions to the filibuster rules from 1969 to 2014. And McConnell himself changed the rules for the filibuster in 2017 as it applies to Supreme Court nominees, lowering the threshold from 60 to a simple majority. 

By moving to suspend the filibuster in order to vote on the For the People Act, the Senate would address head-on the frustrations that millions of Americans feel as they watch their elected officials descend into ever-deepening legislative dysfunction that has paralyzed Washington’s ability to conduct the people’s business. And a key senator in this fight, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, could directly address the concerns of his constituents if he were to support suspension of the filibuster in the fight for transformational reform.

In fact, a recent poll conducted by the group End Citizens United, using Sen. Manchin’s own pollster, found that 79 percent of West Virginians support the For the People Act. And they support it because not only would it guarantee access to the ballot (making it the most important civil rights bill in a generation), but it would also rid the political system of the corrupting influence of big money. A reform that is wildly popular because Americans want government that is responsive to the people.

Shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was emphatic with his aides that passing major civil rights legislation had to be at the very top of his agenda. His aides pushed back against the new president by saying that it would jeopardize his chances of winning election in 1964. Johnson responded by saying “Well, what the Hell is the Presidency for?”

Let’s hope that Sen. Manchin ultimately answers the same way. If we can’t suspend the rules of the filibuster to pass the most transformational reform and sweeping civil rights bill in 50 years, well then, what the hell is the Senate for?

Matt Keller is the vice president of Democracy 21 in Washington, D.C. He has been the executive director of the Global Learning XPRIZE sponsored by Elon Musk, vice president of One Laptop per Child, and a senior program officer with the United Nations World Food Programme serving in Rome, Italy. He also worked as the legislative director for Common Cause, and as a staffer in the United States Senate.

Tags Elon Musk Filibuster in the United States Senate January 6 commission Joe Manchin Mitch McConnell United States Senate
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