Where Donald Trump and Ilhan Omar agree

Partisans in the majority hate the filibuster, until they're in the minority

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is among the Democrats calling for the end of the filibuster in the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is among the Democrats calling for the end of the filibuster in the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 3, 2021 at 10:00am

OPINION Yes, politics does make strange bedfellows.

“With the ridiculous Filibuster Rule in the Senate, Republicans need 60 votes to pass legislation, rather than 51. Can’t get votes, END NOW!” President Donald Trump tweeted on Sept. 15, 2017.

Almost three and a half years later, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, a high-profile member of the Democrats’ progressive wing, expressed her frustration that a $15 minimum wage might not be included in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

“Abolish the filibuster. Replace the parliamentarian. What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills? This is unacceptable,” she tweeted on Feb. 25.

Of course, Omar and Trump aren’t the only current or former elected officials who have called for ways to speed up the legislative process.

“The filibuster is killing democracy,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy tweeted on Feb. 25.

“We are going to end the filibuster in 2021,” California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna promised in a tweet last October, before anyone knew the Senate would flip to a 50-50 chamber with the Democrats in control.

Unlimited debate

The filibuster — or rather the tradition of unlimited debate in the Senate — dates to the early days of the body (either 1789 or 1806, depending on whether you believe the Senate Historical Office or the Brookings Institution).

In 1917, a mechanism, “cloture,” was adopted to cut off debate. In 1975, the Senate lowered the number of votes needed to impose cloture. And unwisely, from my perspective, the need for a supermajority to approve nominations was eliminated recently.

The Senate’s filibuster provides protection to the minority, and it assures that legislation is examined thoroughly, countering some of the passion that is often apparent in the House — and from presidents who know little about American history or government.

And since a supermajority often requires bipartisan support, it means working with the opposition. Requiring only a simple majority in the Senate would make it more like the House and could well add (if that is possible) to polarization and partisanship.

Over the years, many thoughtful observers have offered suggestions on how to modify — not eliminate — the filibuster, from Sarah Binder and Steven Smith in a 2003 Brookings piece to the always astute Norm Ornstein in a September 2020 Atlantic article.

One way would be to return to the original system, under which members would have to be ready for quorum calls and cloture votes at any time, day or night. The current system, under which anything controversial is assumed to need at least 60 votes, makes it easy to block legislation one side doesn’t like. And that is why legislating has become so difficult.

But the more important point is that the problem is not primarily unlimited debate. It is the evolution of our parties from broad-based, nonideological parties that encourage political compromise to heavily ideological parties with members who see the opposition as a dangerous enemy.

The change has wiped out bipartisan cooperation on all but the most “must pass” legislation.

The power of cable television and the internet has also polarized our politics, both on Capitol Hill and around the country. Members of Congress (and those who want to join their ranks) know the influence that those “media” outlets have, and they know that each party’s base is more important in primaries than the political center.

‘Unacceptable

The last part of Omar’s tweet is telling: “What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills? This is unacceptable.”

Unacceptable? Politics is about the possible, not the acceptable. It’s about individual legislators representing their constituents. It’s about members of Congress choosing what legislation they can accept, and what they can’t.

At the end of the day, it’s always about getting 51 votes in the Senate (or 60 now, to cut off debate on legislation), a majority in the House, and a president willing to sign a particular piece of legislation.

If Democrats had made larger gains in the Senate in 2020 and picked up a dozen seats in the House instead of losing them, the party would be in a much better position to negotiate with the GOP or change the rules to allow them to do as they please.

Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona haven’t toed the Democratic line, and that has angered party progressives — just as Trump was angered by John McCain when the late Arizona Republican prevented the repeal of the Affordable Care Act when he voted “no” on that GOP priority.

Some members of the party in power always seem to think that the filibuster is a disaster — until they enter the minority. Then, they suddenly think unlimited debate isn’t such a bad thing. That should tell you something.

The very nature of our political system is based on compromise and negotiation. We need more of it, not less.