David Litt: We already got rid of the filibuster once before
The upshot is that party accountability in the American system mostly centers on the president. Even in midterm elections, when the president isn’t on the ballot, dissatisfied voters tend to punish the president’s party at the polls. This has a certain logic: Figuring out who is president is easy. So is deciding whether you like what you think the president is doing. By contrast, a strikingly large share of voters struggle to identify their representatives in Congress, or even which party controls the House or the Senate. (In 2014, a midterm year, just 38 percent of Americans correctly said that Republicans controlled the House, and the same paltry share correctly said that Democrats controlled the Senate.) In this context, voters are unlikely to punish a minority party wielding the filibuster—and, indeed, are far more likely to punish a president and a president’s party for policy failures caused by the filibuster, even if it is wielded by the other party.
In theory, voters could punish those who filibuster, if they knew who they were and what they were blocking. Today, however, filibusters require little more than a declaration from minority leaders that they have 41 votes against a bill, and so the tactic can be deployed with abandon. Most of the legislation that fails because it has “only” majority support never gets close to the surface of public consciousness. And public understanding of the filibuster itself is weak, to put it diplomatically. A 2020 survey out of Washington University in St. Louis asked, “How many votes are required to end debate and get a vote on normal legislation in the U.S. Senate?” The most popular answer was “not sure” (32 percent); the next most popular was “51 votes” (26 percent)—in other words, majority rule. Just 15.5 percent said “60 votes.” And this was a multiple-choice question with limited options. The other possible answers were “67 votes,” “75 votes,” and “unanimous”—all of which attracted a good chunk of respondents. One wonders how many voters might have gotten it right had they been allowed to come up with their own answers.
Read: How Biden plans to overcome Republican obstructionism
Although the use of the filibuster has been increasing since the 1980s, McConnell, the Senate Republican leader since 2007, has perfected its deployment. In 2009, President Barack Obama came into office with an enviable level of public support, and he faced an economic crisis for which the other party was widely blamed. Confronted with unified Democratic control, McConnell did not encourage his party to compromise. Instead, he ramped up use of the filibuster to previously unseen levels. Everything that could be filibustered was—even routine and trivial matters, even bills and appointments that the Republicans ultimately planned to support. McConnell candidly explained his strategy in 2011:
We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals. Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the “bipartisan” tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.
This quote is worth parsing. McConnell was saying that certain legislation Obama wanted to pass could have gotten bipartisan support, which Americans would have then seen as affirming its general goodness. But McConnell didn’t want that legislation to pass, or Americans to draw that conclusion. Fingerprints is the most revealing word. It makes clear that what mattered to him was that Obama would take the blame. For Republicans, the filibuster was a win-win-win: It sharply reduced the range of issues that Democrats could advance; it ensured that even bills that got through were subject to withering attacks for months, dragging down public support; and it produced an atmosphere of gridlock and dysfunction for which Democrats would pay the price.