Enacting Popular Policy Proposals Requires Getting Rid of the Filibuster
Representational democracy in the United States received another blow this week, yet — unlike recent Republican efforts to limit voting rights or pass unpopular tax cuts for the rich — it received almost no media attention.
In a frustrating setback for President Biden’s economic agenda, the little-known but highly influential Senate parliamentarian issued a new ruling that limits Democrats’ ability to use budget reconciliation, the critical procedural tool used for side-stepping filibusters. Updating her April ruling that Democrats could repeatedly revise budget resolutions to use reconciliation multiple times per year, the parliamentarian’s new guidance states that the revision process is only allowed if there are significant changes in economic conditions. More importantly, unlike the initial budget proposal which Sen. Bernie Sanders (chair of the Senate Budget Committee) can fast-track directly to the floor for full vote, a revised budget must first clear the evenly divided Budget Committee, requiring Republican support.
The budget reconciliation process was created by Congress in the 1970s in order to pass legislation affecting mandatory spending, taxes, or the debt ceiling more easily. Under “regular order” in the Senate, a minority of members can block legislation unless it has 60 votes, but under budget reconciliation a bill can pass with 51 votes in the Senate, which can include a vote of the Vice President to break ties.
Democrats have had some similar setbacks already. For example, the parliamentarian ruled recently that Congress could not increase the minimum wage through budget reconciliation. But this week’s ruling is more serious because it may mean that only one tax bill (or one bill combining tax and spending) can be passed through reconciliation in most years.
This new ruling by the parliamentarian — an unelected Senate advisor — is a stark reminder of the Senate’s anti-democratic design. The filibuster’s 60-vote threshold is a Jim Crow-era relic. Further, Democratic senators represent 41.5 million more voters than their Republican counterparts despite the even 50–50 split in the chamber. These structural barriers are stymieing a set of proposals that are not only essential for building a more just economy but also wildly popular with the American people — 68 percent of Americans support the plan and a full 58 percent endorse passing the legislation through reconciliation. In 2017, GOP leaders pushed through a wholly unpopular tax law that primarily benefited corporations and the wealthy through reconciliation. And now they want to block a popular piece of legislation by exploiting procedural rules.
The good news is that Democrats can still fight back. First, the parliamentarian’s “rulings” are just suggestions that the president of the Senate — Vice President Harris — is free to overrule.
Plus, let’s not forget that reconciliation only matters because some members, including some Democrats, refuse to abolish the filibuster and pass Biden’s agenda with a simple majority.
Ultimately, Democrats must refuse to let the Senate’s counter-majoritarian bias — featuring a belligerent minority and an unelected official offering her opinion on arcane Senate procedure — block must-pass legislation such as voting rights, healthcare, infrastructure, and tax reform.