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Biden and the Filibuster: What’s Actually Stopping Dems from Delivering?

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The Democrats, in making their case for Joe Biden during the 2020 election cycle, insisted to American voters that a Biden White House would bring much-needed change after four years of Trump. Publicly, Biden ran on promises like a $15 minimum wage, a major expansion of the Affordable Care Act, a cancellation of student debt, and comprehensive reform in areas like criminal justice and immigration. But as Biden’s first 100 days have come and gone, and despite Biden’s successes in getting us desperately needed immediate aid like stimulus checks and temporary child tax credits, Americans are still waiting on broader, long term reform.

In early April, Biden announced he would not be touching the historically low 15,000 refugee cap from the Trump administration, and only under immense public pressure did he agree to raise it to 62,500. But in the last year of the Obama administration, the U.S. welcomed close to 85,000 refugees! Similarly, one of Biden’s day one promises was an immediate reversal of Trump’s cutting of the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% percent. 100+ days in, and taxes on big business haven’t been raised a dime. An increase to a measly 28% has been put forward as part of Biden’s infrastructure bill, but in recent days the White House has indicated that they are willing to compromise to 25%

With the unprecedented and acute crisis working people endured during the last 18 months, the moment calls for an immediate $15 an hour minimum wage, a transition to Medicare for All, a permanent extension of child and childcare tax credits, and robust taxes on the rich and corporations to pay for it. All of this is 100% doable for the Democrats with their control of the White House and majorities in both the House and Senate. However, absent a mass social struggle — they won’t do any of it. This is because their willingness to provide for working people only goes as far as is necessary to save capitalism from collapse. Taking on big pharma and major corporations like Amazon is not on their agenda.

What is Biden’s excuse for not doing what’s necessary for working people? As usual, and as we heard for eight years under Obama, the messaging is “I want to deliver on my promises and fight for working people, but the Republicans won’t let me.” This time around, with the Democrats holding only a one vote majority in the Senate through the Vice President as tie-breaker, the scapegoat is the filibuster: a procedure which effectively requires a 60-vote supermajority to get anything passed. This is quickly becoming a crisis for Democrats as Republicans are seeking to ram through 389 bills (as of mid-May) in over 43 states to restrict the right to vote. A sweeping voting rights bill that would combat these attacks, which will disproportionately disenfranchise poor, working class, Black and Latino voters, is stalling in the Senate because of the supposedly insurmountable filibuster. 

But if the filibuster is the reason we aren’t seeing the far-reaching change Biden promised, what do the Democrats plan to do about it? Is there another explanation for their inaction and failure to deliver for the voters who sent them to Washington? 

What is the Filibuster and Why Do We Have It?

The filibuster is a uniquely American procedural tool that has been around since the early days of our government. Until 1917, most legislative matters could be subject to unlimited debate in the Senate, with the result that if lawmakers wanted to block something from being passed, they simply had to stand up and talk until the rest of their colleagues were sick of hearing about it or until the legislative session came to an end. At the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, the Senate instituted a two-thirds majority rule for forcing the end of debate on a bill, or overcoming a filibuster, and in 1975 that threshold was lowered to the 60-vote requirement we have today. The 1975 rule change also included getting rid of the requirement that filibustering senators actually have to get up and talk; now they just have to signal their intent to block a law’s passage. As a result, we have our current nightmare scenario, where a 60-seat majority is essentially required for the passage of almost all legislation. 

Proponents of the filibuster argue that it protects against rash policy-making and too much partisanship in government. But what is it actually used for? In reality, the filibuster is used to block any and all gains for working people, and cement the status quo for the benefit of the political and donor classes. Throughout our country’s history, the filibuster has consistently been used for this purpose, and specifically to quell the power of the Civil Rights Movement and diminish gains for Black Americans wherever possible. Southern white capitalists, benefiting from the subjugation of the Black population, sent their senators to Washington during the 19th and 20th centuries to block moves toward the abolition of slavery, desegregation, and the expansion of voting rights. The filibuster was a crucial tool in this process; in many cases, civil rights bills were filibustered out of existence even when the White House and a majority in both houses of Congress supported them, including 20th-century efforts to eliminate poll taxes, prosecute lynchings, and address racist housing discrimination. Just last year, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky used the filibuster to try to block a bill that would make lynching a federal hate crime

To be clear, the problem isn’t just that the filibuster is commonly used for these nefarious purposes; it’s that the filibuster is designed to block progress and gains for working people, as is the Senate in general! From the beginning, the Senate was intended to moderate the House, which is naturally more responsive to swaying public opinion due to the lower stakes of its elections, which are infused with less corporate money, shorter term limits for those who are elected, and because its seats are apportioned based on population, as opposed to the Senate’s “equal” distribution of two seats per state. Today, when there are more rural, mostly conservative states than there are states with multiracial urban centers, urban working class voters are cheated out of an incredible amount of voting power over the Senate; each voter in Wyoming has 70 times the influence of a voter in California. And crucially, senators more closely reflect big business interests, not to their people’s interests; average Senators are much wealthier than House members, and Senate elections are flushed with exorbitant amounts of corporate cash that poses a higher barrier of entry for working class candidates.. Thus, it’s no surprise that the Senate is still in perpetual gridlock because of the filibuster, something the House did away with in the 1890’s. 

What is Biden’s Stance on the Filibuster? 

So if the filibuster is what’s standing in the way of the progress Biden and the Democrats supposedly want to make, they must be ready to use their control over the White House and both houses of Congress to abolish it, right? After all, eliminating the filibuster would only require a simple majority vote. Turns out, it’s not so simple. Biden has expressed weak support for a return to the “talking filibuster,” i.e. returning to the days when senators had to actually stand before the chamber and keep talking in order to maintain a filibuster. But this reform would likely not change much about the legislative bottlenecks in the Senate; the versions of this reform that are most popular with legislators only require that at least one member of the filibustering minority remain speaking at a time. With 50 Republican senators, the GOP would have no problem working in shifts to keep a bill stalled as long as they want to. Further, the talking filibuster was the only option up until 1975, and in the preceding decades it was used plenty often to curtail victories for working people, including in delaying the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

Similarly, on filibuster reform, Chuck Schumer, the majority leader from New York, has made no commitment either way. Biden, in lieu of actually working towards abolishing the filibuster, “…signal[s] support for progressive critics who want to portray the tactic as tainted by a racist history.” We need to ask sharply: what does that “support” actually deliver for working people? And what does Biden plan to do about not just the filibuster’s history, but its regressive present?  

What is Biden’s Actual Policy Agenda?

The Democrats aren’t willing to whip up a simple majority of votes to abolish an obviously undemocratic, racist, and paralyzing procedural tool like the filibuster in order to get their “progressive agenda” through the Senate for one simple fact: it isn’t their actual agenda. While Biden was on the campaign trail promising urgently needed reform to the American people, he was also promising his billionaire donors behind closed doors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he was elected. In reality, Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, and every other corporate politician all want the same thing: to preserve the status quo and keep money flowing into the hands of the billionaires and the donor class – the constituency they actually serve. With attacks on voting rights the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades threatening the Democrats’ voter base, and therefore majorities in both halls of Congress, the pressure to abolish the filibuster is growing even sharper. And yet Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have both vowed to protect the filibuster. 

A party with an agenda that actually addressed the needs of the working class would not only do everything in its power to abolish the filibuster, it would have no problem getting its agenda through Congress even with the filibuster in place. Think about it: if Joe Biden had actually wanted to include a universal $15 minimum wage in the last stimulus package, he would have gone around the country promoting it and explaining to people that Republicans were the only thing standing in the way of relief from starvation wages. Not only would it have passed easily, but Democrats would have picked up seats in every election for the next 10 years! Instead, Biden bent to the meaningless decree of the Senate parliamentarian, making zero effort to rally the simple majority he would have needed to overturn it. 

What Do We Need to Win?

Without a doubt, the filibuster, an undemocratic and fundamentally racist, anti-working-class tool of the ruling elite, must be abolished. As long as it remains in place, it will be far harder to achieve the change we desperately need: the PRO Act, Medicare For All, effective police reform, $15, real action on gun violence, a cancellation of all student debt, and climate change policy that actually meets the urgency of the crisis. 

But we don’t harbor illusions in corporate politicians to deliver working people the change we need. Their stance on the filibuster reveals they have no interest in serving us unless they are forced! The multi-gender, multi-racial working class must use our position as the force that keeps the wheels of society turning to first force the abolition of the filibuster – but we can’t stop there. We have to throw our full weight into getting laws like the PRO Act and M4A passed; and ultimately, we need a political party that actually works for us and is accountable to our interests and our movements. Politicians, while governing, should always be oriented toward working people. Right now, Joe Biden is proving that he has more allegiance to his supposed enemies, the Republicans, than he does to us. 

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