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The Filibuster’s Most Devilish Trick

For lawmakers who want to pay lip service to policies they don’t actually want to enact, the Senate’s Jim Crow relic provides a convenient alibi.

Senator Joe Manchin speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing 
Oliver Contreras/Getty Images

On Monday, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the main character of the United States Senate, announced that he would co-sponsor one of the main items on the Democratic legislative agenda—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a bill that would functionally end state right-to-work laws and make it easier for American workers to unionize. “Fifty percent of unions fail in their first year of organizing,” he said during an event with the National Press Club. “This legislation will level the playing field.”

This was an odd development alongside the news that Manchin would also be speaking this week at a conference for the National Restaurant Association, which has been a dogged opponent of the PRO Act and other labor reforms. But it was celebrated by activists who’ve worked hard to pull reluctant Democrats in the right direction—in a recent week of action, the Democratic Socialists of America made 500,000 phone calls in support of the PRO Act to states with holdout senators, including West Virginia.

But Manchin’s announcement hasn’t opened up a path to the PRO Act’s passage. As an ordinary piece of legislation mostly containing nonfiscal, regulatory provisions, the bill in its current form cannot be passed through budget reconciliation. There have been reports that Democrats want to explore including fragments of it in a reconciliation package, but it’s not clear what in the bill would qualify under current rules and with a parliamentarian who was unwilling to interpret them in the party’s favor over raising the minimum wage. Given Republican opposition, and Democrats’ unwillingness to overrule the parliamentarian, the PRO Act as a complete package isn’t going anywhere unless the filibuster is eliminated or substantially altered. Joe Manchin still opposes this.

What does it actually mean to “support” the PRO Act while opposing the only plausible means of passing it? There are two possibilities. The first is that Manchin genuinely supports the PRO Act in substance but believes preserving the Senate’s rules is more important than its passage—perhaps because he also genuinely believes in all the claptrap about the filibuster facilitating bipartisan compromise, because he fears the consequences of Republicans regaining power without a filibuster in place, because he thinks the filibuster will prevent votes on other Democratic legislation he opposes, or some combination of the three. The other possibility is that Manchin doesn’t actually support the PRO Act in substance but wants to be seen, with his co-sponsorship, as a friend of unions and working-class West Virginians anyway.

Whatever Manchin’s motivations actually are, the situation illustrates something critical about the role the filibuster has come to play in our politics. Beyond allowing minorities to block bills, the filibuster can also be a convenient crutch for the majority—both because it prevents difficult votes from being taken and because it allows legislators to win plaudits for supporting legislation they might not have a real interest in actually passing.

The filibuster’s value as a political alibi was fittingly demonstrated last month when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Democrats that Republicans would restrict abortion, end sanctuary cities, and pass other horrors in their next Congress in retaliation if the filibuster were abolished. This amounted to an admission that the campaign season promises Republicans make to implement these ideas are a long con. As much as they might tell their voters they want to pass them, Senate Republicans know they have no way of doing so without the filibuster’s elimination—which would help Democrats—and they might not really want to enact much of that agenda anyway given the substantive extremity of their proposals and the likelihood that they would set off a political backlash. So, unsurprisingly, Republicans did little more with full control of Congress under Trump than pass tax cuts and appoint judges. The rest was implicitly punted to a future, entirely hypothetical Republican Congress with either a post-filibuster Senate or a filibuster-proof Senate supermajority.

The hope that legislative impasses might be solved with more seats animates voters on both sides of the aisle—by donating more money, spending more time canvassing and phone banking, and bringing more people to the polls even for long-shot candidates well outside of purple territory, they’re told that the failed promises of the last campaign will finally come to fruition the next time around. The burden of honoring these pledges falls not on the candidates who made them in the first place—all of whom, voters are assured, are trying their very best to bring ambitious policies to pass⁠—but on voters themselves. But the actual obstacle to the passage of major legislation in Congress, in a political environment where Senate supermajorities are becoming less and less possible, is the filibuster, and winning any majority short of 60 seats is functionally useless for most significant bills unless the party caucuses are willing to kill it.

That reality shapes political discourse in subtle and underappreciated ways. On Monday, The New York Times’ Nate Cohn published a column warning readers about the threat that rising sectarianism poses to the American political system. “It’s not a term usually used in discussions about American politics,” he wrote. “It’s better known in the context of religious sectarianism—like the hostility between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq. Yet a growing number of eminent political scientists contend that political sectarianism is on the rise in America.”

There are good reasons to doubt and challenge some of the conclusions pundits have drawn from the literature on partisanship, but those troubled by polarization should probably consider that the filibuster allows candidates to promise the moon to primary voters without reaping the consequences of enacted policy, encourages the adoption of culture-war messaging given the difficulty of passing substantive legislation, assures extremists that they won’t be penalized by the adoption of an opposing agenda if they lose elections, and prevents the passage of structural democratic reforms that might encourage both parties to appeal to the broader electorate.

It should be said, too, that the main thing sustaining the filibuster and its distortionary impact on our politics at present is bipartisanship as a political value—as demonstrated by the election of a president who has urged his party to see its opponents as partners in governance. That’s not a recipe for eliminating the filibuster and passing the PRO Act or much of anything else. And if Democrats want policy advocates to believe the failure of their agenda would actually trouble them, they should probably start working a little harder to forestall it.