What’s Really Holding the Democrats Back

It’s not the filibuster.

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About the authors: Frances E. Lee is a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University. She is the co-author of The Limits of Party: Congress and Lawmaking in a Polarized Era.   James M. Curry is an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. He is the co-author of The Limits of Party: Congress and Lawmaking in a Polarized Era.

Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s Democratic senator, has put everyone on notice: Under no circumstances will he vote to eliminate the Senate filibuster. If the support of at least 10 Republicans is needed to pass legislation, progressives have little hope for their agenda. At least that’s what many seem to think. But eliminating the filibuster probably wouldn’t matter as much as they believe it would. The bigger obstacle to any party’s agenda is its members’ inability to agree among themselves.

We compiled the stated policy goals of every congressional majority party from 1985 through 2018. We identified the parties’ agendas by looking to the bills designated as leadership priorities and the issues flagged by the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader in their opening speech to Congress, yielding a list on average of 15 top priorities per congressional term. Tracking each proposal, 265 in total, we found that the parties failed outright on their agenda priorities about half the time, meaning that no legislation on the issue was enacted.

We then analyzed when, how, and why each failed, and also whether the majority party faced a unified or divided government when it did. Naturally, when a party controlled the House, Senate, and presidency, it fared somewhat better in enacting its agenda than when it didn’t, but not markedly so. Parties failed on 43 percent of their agenda priorities in unified government as compared with 49 percent in divided government. This failure rate varies from Congress to Congress, but has remained fairly consistent even in recent years. When Democrats most recently held all three branches of government (in 2009–10), they failed on 50 percent of their agenda items. When Republicans most recently held all three (in 2017–18), they failed on 36 percent.

When a party has unified control of government, the filibuster provides the Senate’s minority party (if it has at least 41 senators) with the ability to stop the majority’s legislative efforts. This is why partisans focus so much on the filibuster, and why progressive activists are so concerned over it right now. But the filibuster accounted for only about one-third of the majority party’s failures during the periods of unified government we studied. In the two most recent instances of unified government—the Democrats in 2009–10 and the Republicans in 2017–18—agenda failures caused by the filibuster were even less common. The Democrats had just one of their priorities, immigration reform, fail because of the filibuster. The Republicans had none. Filibuster reform, then, may enable Democrats to achieve particular policy goals opposed by Republicans, and those would certainly be victories. But most failures, about two-thirds overall during years of unified government and 90 percent during the past two instances of unified government, stemmed from disagreements within the majority party rather than the minority party’s ability to block legislation via the filibuster.

In fact, every party that has had unified control of government in the post-Reagan era, as the Democrats do now, has failed on at least one of its highest policy priorities because of the party’s inability to reach internal consensus.

Newly returned to unified government for the first time since 1980, Democrats under President Bill Clinton collapsed on health-care reform, their top agenda item. The party deadlocked between moderates and liberals who could not agree on fundamentals, including an employer mandate and premium caps. Health-care reform never received a vote in either the House or the Senate in 1993–94. In 2003–04, Republicans could not agree among themselves to make the Bush tax cuts permanent; conservatives insisted that tax cuts pay for themselves, and moderates were concerned about deficits. In 2005–06, Republicans tried to add individual investment accounts to Social Security. But neither House nor Senate Republicans ever got a bill out of committee.

During the Obama administration, which had periods of unified and divided government, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell used the filibuster aggressively to block the president’s nominations. But filibusters of nominees do not tell us about the filibuster’s impact on lawmaking. Other analysts have shown that the number of filed cloture petitions (a motion that precedes “cloture,” or ending debate, requiring 60 senators in support) increased exponentially during McConnell’s years as Republican leader. They point to this number as evidence of the power of the filibuster. But the act of filing for cloture does not mean that a bill is actively being filibustered, only that the Senate’s majority leader wants to be ready, just in case it is.

For our analysis, we looked into the parties’ legislative efforts on their agenda priorities, drawing on journalistic coverage and several interviews with key players to ascertain why failures occurred. We found that filibusters were the cause of failure on only about one-third of the Democrats’ failed agenda items during the Obama years, and on just one of six failed items when the Democrats controlled both the House and Senate in 2009–10. This tally even includes instances in which news reporting indicated that the Democrats dropped a legislative drive in anticipation of a Senate filibuster. By contrast, almost 60 percent of failures during the Obama years were attributable to disagreements within the party.

For instance, in 2009–10, Senate Democrats never came close to passing a climate-change bill. Because of internal disagreements, the 2009 cap-and-trade bill passed the House of Representatives only with the help of a few Republican votes. But differences among Democrats then doomed the bill in the Senate, as lawmakers from oil-drilling and coal-mining states never got on board. Likewise, Democrats were unable to coalesce to repeal the “midnight regulations” adopted in the waning months of the Bush presidency. Democrats also failed to unify around a new direction in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and, after internal dissention, wound up passing military appropriations with overwhelming support from Republicans that continued operations with no significant change.

Republicans in recent years have also seen many of their party’s legislative ambitions fail, but rarely because of the filibuster. In the most recent case of Republican unified control (2017–18), during the first two years of President Donald Trump’s term, every case of failure in our data was due to disagreements within the GOP. Republicans could not agree on how to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Despite devoting nine months to the effort, Republicans were unable to overcome their differences, even on the “skinny repeal” bill, which three moderate Republican senators—Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and John McCain of Arizona—decisively rejected.

Although both parties have grown more cohesive in roll-call voting since the 1970s, they continue to struggle with intra-party disunity when it really counts. For instance, Republicans could agree on dozens of symbolic votes to repeal the ACA, but they were unable to do so when their votes would have had consequences in the real world. Turning vague campaign promises into actual legislative language is much harder than agreeing on messaging bills and other symbolic exercises.

Filibuster-reform proponents should therefore not assume that any proposal for which a Senate party previously mustered 51 votes would have passed if the filibuster had not existed. Many of these past votes and stances should not be taken at face value. Members of the majority are free to support policy proposals they have misgivings about when they know the minority will block them. In doing so, they can take positions appealing to their party’s base without worrying about true consequences.

The Democratic Party in Congress today is less ideologically diverse than the Democratic Party of the Obama years. But it is also far smaller. A tiny number of dissenting votes is enough right now to deny the party its ability to pass anything by majority vote. In the Senate, Democrats can’t afford even one “no” vote, and we are already seeing signs of disunity. Consider the Biden administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which has met opposition, not just from Republicans but also from moderate and progressive Democrats. Progressives have called the proposal “not nearly enough,” urging the Biden administration to “go BIG” and backing a $10 trillion plan called the THRIVE Act. Moderate Democrats are either concerned that the proposal is too big or oppose the full extent of the corporate tax hike—or both. Eliminating the filibuster will not bridge these divides.

Majority parties need to be large and highly cohesive to deliver on a partisan agenda—and these two conditions seldom coincide. For many reasons beyond the filibuster, including disagreements within each party caucus, differences between House members and senators of the same party, and the frequency of divided government, bills rarely become law on the strength of only one party’s votes. According to our calculations, since 2011, 90 percent of all new laws clearing the House, and 75 percent clearing the Senate, have initially passed the chamber with positive votes from at least a majority of minority-party members. Many of the bills that have gone on to become law have been written in a bipartisan manner from the start, even in the very majoritarian House of Representatives. Bills are often shaped in ways to get to at least 60 votes. Such efforts may involve painful compromises that can fracture intra-party consensus. But purposeful bipartisanship stems not from the filibuster alone. It is rooted in a constitutional policy-making system that obstructs party power in numerous ways.

Overall, we’ve seen that bipartisan accomplishments are still possible, even in recent, polarized years. The 116th Congress (2019–20) passed the CARES Act. Adopted in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it was the most effective anti-poverty law passed in the United States in more than a generation. Combined with the other four COVID-related stimulus bills last year, Congress enacted almost $4 trillion in pandemic relief. All of this legislation had broad, in some cases universal, bipartisan support.

In fact, recent Congresses have been considerably more productive and bipartisan than is generally appreciated. In 2020 Congress passed legislation protecting 1.3 million new acres of wilderness and enacted a $35 billion energy package that a senior policy adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council called “perhaps the most significant climate legislation Congress has ever passed.” Since 2017, Congress has passed bipartisan legislation overhauling federal criminal-justice policy, revamping trade policy with Mexico and Canada, updating copyright law for the digital-streaming age, permanently extending the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, and mandating paid maternity leave for more than 2 million federal civilian workers.

During President Barack Obama’s tenure, Democrats and Republicans also accomplished some major policy making together, including an expansion of the Violence Against Women Act, a revamp of federal K–12 education policy, the 21st Century Cures Act (which, among other things, streamlined drug-approval processes in ways that may have helped speed up the release of the COVID-19 vaccines), and the USA Freedom Act, which rolled back many of the unpopular surveillance policies put in place under the PATRIOT Act.

Congress does not need to get rid of the filibuster to do big things, nor will its elimination clear the way for a sweeping progressive agenda. Filibuster reform may make the opposition to the majority party’s agenda less potent, but it would do nothing to resolve the party’s continuing, significant internal disagreements. Internal diversity in two continent-wide political parties makes it very difficult for either to legislate its activists’ dreams into realities, filibuster or no.