The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We once backed using the filibuster. Now it must be reformed.

Members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus legislature speak during a news conference on Capitol Hill on July 13. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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John Podesta is the founder and chair of the board of directors for the Center for American Progress. Wade Henderson is the interim president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Try explaining to a Black grandmother raised under Jim Crow why it takes only 50 votes in the Senate to stack the Supreme Court with justices who are undermining her voting rights, but 60 votes to pass a bill protecting them. Or better yet, ask her to tell you about her life 60 years ago, and how the law was used to keep her from accessing education, jobs and the ballot box.

Americans are watching in real time as states pass bills to erect barriers to the ballot box for communities of color and to make it easier for a state legislature to overturn the results of an election. Some measures have sought to criminalize giving water to people waiting in long voting lines, disproportionately found in Black communities; others have attempted to bar early voting on Sundays, a transparent effort to stop Black voters from going to the polls after church.

In June, the Supreme Court undermined yet another key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had stood as the central victory of the civil rights movement safeguarding the right of Americans to vote. Congress alone remains the last backstop to defend Americans’ constitutional rights against grossly partisan and unhinged attacks that seek to upend the very fabric of our democracy.

Fortunately, the House of Representatives has already passed landmark bills to revitalize our democracy, and it is expected to pass legislation restoring the reach of the Voting Rights Act very soon. Yet, despite broad support from Senate Republicans for voting rights over the past few decades — including unanimous support for a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 — today very few Republican senators have shown any interest in working across the aisle to defend the freedom to vote. Instead, they hide behind the threat of filibuster to quash debate. After Senate Republicans blocked multiple efforts to take up voting rights legislation, calls for filibuster reforms are becoming louder and will spark debate in the Senate upon members’ return in September.

In the 1980s, the two of us worked together and, when no other tool was available, argued in support of using the filibuster to protect the independence of our federal courts and Americans’ individual liberties. We believed at the time that the Senate should have extended debates on proposals to strip the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear cases on hot-button issues such as busing and abortion.

The filibuster seemingly offered an important compromise — it would constrain the ability of the majority party to rush through legislation unilaterally, but it would then offer leverage to the minority party to influence the outcomes of debates. Although the filibuster had historically been used to block progress on civil rights, it also seemed to promote debate, so long as Senate minorities were working in good faith with the majority, finding honorable compromise where possible.

With the pressures of near-constant electioneering, 24-hour news and increased political polarization, it has become clear that assessment no longer holds. Instead of promoting debate and compromise, or serving as a “cooling saucer” to the House’s hot tea, the filibuster has in recent years become a tool of the minority to block legislation on nearly every major issue facing our nation.

Yet, even as the filibuster’s use has expanded, its application has been arbitrary, applying to some matters but not others and undergoing multiple changes over the past century. It should not go unnoticed that many of the biggest priorities of the right — such as tax cuts for the wealthy and stacking the Supreme Court with conservative justices — were achieved by carving out exceptions to the filibuster.

This selective application was not Republicans’ province alone: Democrats had previously done so for lower-court judges, and the Senate has also carved out a number of other matters, including military base closures, trade policy and regulatory review.

It’s time to expand those exceptions to include the right to vote. With goodwill and comity exhausted, and against the backdrop of states determined to disenfranchise their own citizens, we now support broad reform of the filibuster to allow a majority vote on many of the other most pressing issues for American families. Creating a more limited carveout would likely just encourage a future Republican majority to shrink the filibuster’s scope further.

Yet, with the future of our democracy hanging in the balance, we believe the Senate must do whatever it takes, be it broad reform or a narrow exception, to safeguard our elections and democratic process for all Americans, just as it did nearly six decades ago. We must make it easier to vote — not harder — for both our citizens and senators alike.