‘I don’t know what you all don’t understand about this,” Senator Joe Manchin said on Tuesday, having been urged once again by a journalist to oppose the legislative filibuster. “You ask the same question every day.”
“Ask” is one way of putting it, certainly. Another might be “cajole.” Since it became clear that the filibuster represented an obstacle to President Biden’s increasingly expansive agenda, almost every political journalist in America has been panting for an end to the institution and refusing to take “no” for an answer from the two most vocal holdouts, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. At times, the approach has been simply to badger the pair. “Will you? Will you? Will you? Will you?”
Thus far, neither Manchin nor Sinema has budged. Better still, they have calmly laid out their reasoning in ways that should have embarrassed both the Democratic Party and its sycophants in the press. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post in April, Manchin affirmed that “there is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster” and contended (somewhat unrealistically) that keeping it would ensure “a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.” Speaking from Texas earlier this week, Sinema echoed Manchin’s justification. “Rather than allowing our country to ricochet wildly every two to four years back and forth between policies,” Sinema said, “the idea of the filibuster was created by those who came before to create comity and to encourage bipartisanship and work together.” Once upon a time, figures such as John McCain were praised as “mavericks” for bucking their party’s whims and expressing sentiments such as these.
As Senator Sinema has observed, one benefit of the legislative filibuster is that it prevents an unstable “ricochet” effect in our most controversial public policy. But, in a continental nation such as ours, it also ensures that the federal government is able to act in the first instance only with significant buy-in and, in consequence, guarantees that the vast majority of the questions facing the people will be resolved by the states. By design, the Founders created a national government charged with doing only a handful of things. Over time, that government has grown beyond recognition — to the point at which every election has become a pitched battle and every cultural issue a national fight to the death. Those who lament this state of affairs would do well to consider how much worse things might get absent the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.
Just three years ago, with the Republicans in charge of all of Washington, D.C., 31 of the 48 Democrats in the Senate signed a bipartisan letter affirming their commitment to the filibuster as a crucial element within America’s political setup. All that has changed since then is which party is in the minority. When, perhaps less than two years from now, the Washington landscape changes once more, the Democrats may end up looking back on Senators Sinema and Manchin not as obstructionist narcissists but as principled lawmakers who had the foresight to preserve this tool against the day when Republicans are in control of Washington again.