I’ve frequently criticized West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s approach to the filibuster. But I’m not blind to his unusual electoral situation. In his 2018 Senate race, Manchin won by 3.3 percent in a state where Trump won 68 percent of the vote in both 2016 and 2020.* It would be unreasonable to expect him to vote like a Democratic senator from nearby Maryland or East Virginia when he represents a state that doesn’t vote like either of those places. Pressuring him on the filibuster only asks that he doesn’t actively stand in the way of his own party.
These constraints don’t apply to Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, the only other Democratic senator who vocally supports the filibuster. Some of her colleagues, such as Montana’s Jon Tester, have found themselves able to offer a more critical view of the filibuster despite hailing from not-quite-blue states. And her willingness to defend the filibuster stands in sharp contrast with fellow Arizona Senator Mark Kelly. Though Kelly says he’s noncommittal on lowering the 60-vote threshold, he also isn’t actively trying to defend it.
Sinema’s latest effort to justify her stance is perhaps her most unpersuasive offering yet. In an op-ed in The Washington Post on Monday, she argued that the filibuster is actually a boon for American democracy instead of an anchor around its neck. “Instability, partisanship, and tribalism continue to infect our politics,” Sinema wrote. “The solution, however, is not to continue weakening our democracy’s guardrails. If we eliminate the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, we will lose much more than we gain.”
It’s useful to get senators like Sinema and Manchin on the record about their support for the filibuster because it highlights the weakness of their arguments. To borrow Sinema’s metaphor, the filibuster functions less like a guardrail for democracy and more like a roadblock to it—one that a minority of senators can use to thwart the majority’s will. In that sense, the 60-vote threshold is better understood as a contributor to instability and tribalism than a means to contain those forces. That, in turn, makes it a threat to American democracy in the long term.
I’m not talking about democracy in its grandiose or aspirational sense. I mean democracy in its fundamental mechanics. It’s not really that complicated. First, candidates propose policies for voters. Then voters scrutinize their policies and elect the ones they favor most. If those policies work out, voters can reelect the candidates at a future date. If not, they can replace them with policies and candidates that they prefer more. At the national level, these various contests should produce a legislature that reflects the will of the people in its most basic sense. And that status is what gives it the power to pass laws in the first place.
The filibuster isn’t the only feature of our politics that interrupts this process. Partisan gerrymandering in the House, weak federal campaign finance laws, state-level restrictions on voting, and the Senate’s basic structure all impose their own limits on the fundamentals of American democracy. But the filibuster is a particularly visible one—and, in theory, one of the easiest hurdles to fix.
Despite its supposed defense of American democracy, Sinema’s op-ed only briefly nods at the voters themselves, and mainly for performative cynicism. “Everyday Arizonans are focused on questions that matter most in their daily lives,” Sinema wrote. “Is my job secure? Can I expand my business? Can we afford college? What about health care? When can I retire? Is my community safe? Meanwhile, much of Washington’s focus is on a Senate rule requiring 60 votes to advance most legislation.”
Well, yes. That’s because almost all of the Democratic policy proposals to address those “questions that matter most” in the daily lives of Arizonans are dead on arrival in Washington, even though Democrats control Congress and the White House—in no small part because of how those Arizonans voted. It’s understandable if Arizonans have higher personal priorities than arcane Senate rules. I wish I could write about other things more often, as well. Arizonans, like the rest of their fellow Americans, elect lawmakers like Sinema to work through these things on their behalf.
Some of Sinema’s arguments are intentionally abstract. “My support for retaining the 60-vote threshold is not based on the importance of any particular policy,” she wrote. “It is based on what is best for our democracy. The filibuster compels moderation and helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles.” But since Congress has spent the last 50 years shuffling its policymaking powers off onto the executive branch, this isn’t even true as a practical matter. Trump and Biden each spent their first weeks in office firing off dozens of executive orders to reverse their predecessors’ policies. One might do well to ask: Do you feel like you live in a more moderate country than you did five or 10 years ago?
A significant portion of Sinema’s filibuster defense is based on the fear of what a unified Republican government could achieve without it. “To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to pass the For the People Act (voting-rights legislation I support and have co-sponsored), I would ask: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority?”
Let’s be clear here that there is little interest among moderate Republican senators to pass the For the People Act, and plenty of opposition from the rest of the Senate GOP caucus to defeat it. The bill will almost certainly not become law unless the filibuster is narrowed or scrapped. And since Sinema is resisting efforts to do just that, she is only strengthening the hand of Republican state legislatures as they pass all sorts of restrictive measures on voter access and participation.
Those immediate perils outweigh the hypothetical fears she offers. “If Sinema were to forthrightly acknowledge those abuses,” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted on Tuesday, “it would show that the filibuster enables a starkly unbalanced situation: While legislative majorities pass dramatic anti-democratic measures everywhere on the state level, this can only be checked on the federal level by a legislative supermajority.”
Sinema went on to describe two other worst-case scenarios under a Republican trifecta.
To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to expand health-care access or retirement benefits: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to later see that legislation replaced by legislation dividing Medicaid into block grants, slashing earned Social Security and Medicare benefits, or defunding women’s reproductive health services?
To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to empower federal agencies to better protect the environment or strengthen education: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see federal agencies and programs shrunk, starved of resources, or abolished a few years from now?
This is a rational fear, but there are also good reasons to doubt it would be so simple. First, the Affordable Care Act is effectively a 12-year test case of this hypothesis. Republicans defined themselves in part over the last decade by their zeal to destroy Democrats’ landmark health care law. When they won a trifecta in 2017, they spent most of the first year in power trying to repeal the ACA. Even their so-called “skinny repeal” version failed to pass the Senate, with the GOP’s handful of moderates torpedoing the bill in a dramatic late-night session.
Republicans aren’t that enthusiastic about democracy these days, but GOP lawmakers aren’t exactly immune to electoral pressures yet, either. And what Sinema envisions would be an even greater leap than what the GOP sought to do in 2017. The programs she lists are so popular that Trump outmaneuvered his rivals in 2016 in part because he pledged not to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. And while he characteristically reneged on that promise in his budget proposals and during his 2020 campaign, Trump effectively demonstrated how little genuine appetite there is among rank-and-file conservatives to carry out the policy wishes of right-wing think tankers.
Finally, as others quickly pointed out after Sinema published her op-ed, the filibuster doesn’t actually protect any of these things. Senate rules allow lawmakers to bypass the filibuster through a process known as budget reconciliation, which allows for simple majority votes when the Senate considers certain budget and tax-related bills. Sinema should know this: It’s how Democrats got the American Rescue Plan, Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, through Congress in March. And if Republicans should get a trifecta in four years, they could always do exactly what she says without changing anything.
Indeed, her point only underscores a deeper asymmetry between the two parties when it comes to the filibuster. For Democrats to achieve any of their policy priorities—on voting rights, on climate change, on health care, and more—they have to navigate a 60-vote gauntlet and the assent of 10 GOP senators. Republicans, on the other hand, can cut taxes, slash the federal budget, and stuff the courts with right-wing judges with a simple majority. Consider the ACA example from earlier: Democrats enacted it with a 60-vote Senate majority in 2010, and the GOP came close to gutting it in 2017 with a 50-vote majority through budget reconciliation.
Sinema seemed to anticipate that her hypothetical scenarios might not be persuasive. “This question is less about the immediate results from any of these Democratic or Republican goals—it is the likelihood of repeated radical reversals in federal policy, cementing uncertainty, deepening divisions and further eroding Americans’ confidence in our government,” she wrote. If this assertion were true, then the massive surge in filibusters over the past 20 years, both in absolute numbers and in overall effect, would have stabilized public confidence in the American constitutional order, if not improved it. The opposite has happened. It’s far more likely that when the government can’t actually govern, people lose faith and confidence in it altogether.
By defending the filibuster, Sinema is not defending some enlightened system where groups of moderate senators often reach broad consensus on pressing national issues. If that system existed, this debate wouldn’t. What she’s propping up right now is a system where the majority doesn’t get to actually govern the country. It must instead beg for the assent of a small, geographically disproportionate minority to do anything other than approve a budget or confirm an ambassador—a minority in whose electoral interests it is for the majority to fail. If Sinema really wants to defend American democracy, she’ll help remove one of its most visible constraints. If not, she’ll keep doing exactly what she’s doing right now.
* This article originally misstated Manchin’s winning margin.