Why keeping the filibuster intact doesn't really promote bipartisanship

July 12, 2021

Bipartisanship is one matter — supermajority rule is another. In the public discourse centered on filibuster reform, the two are commonly conflated. But they are distinct phenomena.

That’s what I think whenever I hear Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinDemocrats hit crunch time in Biden spending fightLobbyists, moderate Democrats rely on debunked arguments against tax hikesDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy (D-W.Va.) express his opposition to eliminating the filibuster.

“The time has come to end these political games,” he wrote in April in The Washington Post, “and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.”

The difficulty with his argument is that our current system doesn’t promote bipartisanship. Instead, it establishes a supermajority threshold where majority rule should suffice. And since a supermajority is an impossibly high bar, power is inadvertently centralized in the hands of a few.

At least that’s the de facto effect.

As things stand, a supermajority in the Senate — 60 of 100 senators — is required to pass legislation. That number is often unattainable, which means Congress can’t steward meaningful change or even pass basic, commonsense legislation. Change that would, for example, outlaw the effect of arbitrary factors — like the amount of melanin in your skin — from determining whether you have the right to vote. Or live freely, outside the confines of a penitentiary. Or live at all — and not perish at the hands of a police officer on your way home from the gas station.

What complicates matters is that the supermajority threshold doesn’t only stymie progress — it undermines it. That’s because bills aren’t the only ones languishing in the Senate, waiting for 60 “ayes” that never come.

Hope languishes, too. Americans have lost trust in the ability of the government to deliver. We see potholes sink deeper in our roadways and bridges creak and crumble from aging infrastructure. We see despair in the faces of Americans who struggle with opioid addiction, or the crush of student loan debt, or the fear that at any moment an active shooter might prowl through the hallways of their high school or office.

How can Congress deliver stability — both physical and financial — to the American people when the bar for passing legislation remains at an unattainable 60 votes?

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