The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Filibuster reformers face a huge obstacle. Here’s why they’re still optimistic.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

At the core of the debate over filibuster reform is a galling paradox. On one hand, voters are well known to hate gridlock and government dysfunction, and the filibuster has played an outsize role in exacerbating both for years.

On the other, the filibuster itself is an arcane procedural tool that voters know very little about. Which leaves them largely in the dark about a key reason all this gridlock and dysfunction they hate is happening — making it harder to do something about it.

This problem is underscored by a new poll commissioned by a coalition of filibuster reformers from two Democratic polling firms. It shows widespread lack of voter knowledge about this issue, which means reformers have their work cut out for them.

And yet, reformers also believe this gives them an opening — to undertake a genuine public education campaign and persuade voters it’s time to reform or end this tactic once and for all.

The poll, which was commissioned by Fix Our Senate and will be released Tuesday, found that 34 percent of voters favor reforming the filibuster and 30 percent oppose it, but 36 percent don’t know enough to say.

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Notably, among Democratic voters, 58 percent support reform, but a surprisingly large 32 percent don’t know enough to say. That “don’t know” category is even larger among young voters (40 percent) and African Americans (47 percent).

“There are still a whole lot of voters who don’t yet understand what the filibuster is or how a minority of senators use it as a tool of partisan obstruction,” Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Fix Our Senate, told me.

Zupnick noted that this requires connecting the dots between “the issues that people care about and the outdated Senate rule standing in the way of any progress on them,” adding that reformers are “doing everything we can to raise awareness.”

Still, the poll also found that when voters are told that under current rules, a single senator can require 60 votes for debate to proceed, 50 percent support reform and 62 percent say it does more to create gridlock than compromise.

“Voters don’t have a lot of information, and there’s an opportunity there to fill that vacuum,” Aileen Cardona, a senior analyst at Hart Research, which conducted the poll with Global Strategy Group, told me.

One interesting nuance here is that, even though voters intuitively understand the absurdity of this when informed of it, the best way of communicating about the issue is to return it to a debate over making government functional.

“Focusing on making Congress work for the people, not for the politicians, works much more than getting into technicalities of the filibuster,” Cardona said. Still, she added, the more voters learn, “the more they move to support filibuster reform.”

This is why prominent progressive Senate Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) are holding a virtual town hall on filibuster reform next Monday. Organizers expect around 250,000 to attend.

Of course, the prospects for reform turn on whether Democratic holdouts such as Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) will drop their opposition. Which points to a particularly frustrating aspect of this whole debate.

The argument made by filibuster proponents, such as Sinema and Manchin, is that it facilitates bipartisanship. The problem is that this seems superficially plausible — if a few members of the minority party are needed to pass bills, that should make bipartisanship more likely, right?

But precisely the opposite is true: The filibuster has become a tool of withholding bipartisan support for cynical ends. Because the minority party benefits politically when the majority party fails to pass things, that incentivizes minority senators not to support bills even if they’re inclined to. If bills were set to pass anyway by simple majority, they’d have more incentive to negotiate changes in exchange for their support.

Adam Jentleson, a former Senate aide and author of a book on the filibuster’s unsavory history, points out that this, too, contains seeds of optimism. We have had a high-quality public debate on this issue, which has punctured filibuster folk theories, such as the idea that it facilitates bipartisanship and accountability in a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” way.

This has, if anything, made awareness more widespread than it might have been. At the same time, the folk theories have not taken hold.

“The strongest defenses tend to emphasize that it’s a long-standing tradition and has a history of promoting bipartisanship,” Jentleson told me, adding that the “low level of awareness” of those folk theories means the coming PR battle is “much more of a jump ball situation.”

“It’s easier for people to get rid of something if they don‘t consider it a foundational feature of our political system,” Jentleson said.

The truth is that the filibuster isn’t foundational, of course. Now, all reformers have to do is persuade the American people of this — and persuade Sinema and Manchin, of course, which might prove even harder.

Read more:

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