The defeat of the For the People Act on the Senate floor after less than a day of debate was far too easy and painless for the minority party. There was only one vote, hardly any debate, no opportunity for amendments, no time to build political pressure or offer compromises before the bill was killed.
This was achieved by a filibuster on the “motion to proceed” to the bill.
This procedure was not deployed to stop final passage of a bill about to become the law – a power many claim is the filibuster’s greatest virtue – but rather it blocked the Senate’s ability to even begin considering the legislation.
The filibuster on motions to proceed gives far too much power to the minority, stymies bipartisanship and weakens democracy. It should be disposed of immediately.
Sen. Joe Manchin has stated that he opposes abolishing the filibuster entirely because he believes the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation requires compromise between the parties and results in legislation with broad public appeal. If these are his goals, he should certainly support eliminating the filibuster on motions to proceed.
As the senator from West Virginia well knows, in the Senate, real compromise, bargaining and tough decisions do not happen until a bill reaches the floor. This is in stark contrast to the House of Representatives, where much of the detailed work takes place in committees. By the time a bill comes to the House floor, it is pretty much a done deal – the legislation usually passes without change.
In the Senate, due to the filibuster and other methods of delay available to each senator, the Senate floor is the crucible where final legislation is forged. To reach final passage, interests of almost all senators must be accommodated.
Filibusters on the motion to proceed short-circuit the natural give and take of a healthy legislative process. And they deprive the majority of the opportunity to use amendments and extended debate to probe minority members’ views and develop ways to garner their support for legislation.
Consider what could happen if Democrats had the power to bring the For the People Act to the floor for debate. Republicans would still have the power to filibuster final passage, so Democrats would need to make changes to try to attract at least 10 Republican votes.
The first step likely would be to replace the House bill with Sen. Manchin’s pared-back alternative, which President Joe Biden, Stacey Abrams and other voting reform advocates have endorsed. Republicans would then be forced to debate not the expansive For the People Act, which even Sen. Manchin objected to, but rather his more narrowly tailored bill containing numerous reforms – like voter ID requirements – preferred by Republicans.
Additional amendments could force individual senators to go on record about why they oppose even modest changes to our voting laws, such as expansion of voting hours. Votes on amendments could reveal a pathway to a genuinely bipartisan bill.
Filibusters on the motion to proceed, however, undercut bipartisanship. Pressures to stick with the party are paramount before debate even begins on legislation.
Things get messier once floor debate has begun. Senators interact over the course of many days or weeks on a bill’s intricacies and compromise positions are developed. The process also attracts media attention, educates the public and provides time for political pressure to build. These are hallmarks of a functioning democracy.
Allowing a minority to extinguish a popular bill in one swift blow through a filibuster, without genuine debate and consideration, is anti-democratic. The practice builds frustration and disenchantment with the legislative process and politics in general.
Like many, I support more dramatic filibuster reform. Yet even those hesitant to abolish the filibuster entirely should see the merits of limiting when it can be used. Under current rules the minority can filibuster a motion to proceed to a bill, an amendment on the floor, final passage in the Senate and final passage of a House-Senate conference report. The minority can even filibuster a motion to appoint senators to negotiate over a bill with the House. This is ridiculous.
Even in our uniquely American constitutional system designed to provide protection to political minorities, the current filibuster rules provide excessive power to the minority and undermine the core democratic principle of majority rule.
Sen. Manchin: If you want to promote bipartisanship, restore health to our democracy and enact broadly supported legislation that serves the public interest, at the very least, please vote to end the filibuster on motions to proceed.
David H. Schanzer is a professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.