The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The hypocrisy argument on the filibuster is itself phony

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) during a Senate committee hearing on Nov. 18. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
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With the Senate facing a do-or-die moment on whether it will protect the right to vote and honest counts in elections, opponents of much-needed reforms want to shift the topic to whether liberals are hypocrites about filibuster rules.

Their desire to change the subject is understandable. Opponents of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act prefer not to explain why a Republican Party that once embraced voting rights bills now echoes segregationist Democrats of old in defending “states’ rights” over federal voting guarantees.

And they would rather not be pressed on why they want to roll back the advances that made voting easier in 2020. More mail and early voting, drop boxes, less cumbersome registration and a slew of other changes led to record-breaking turnout.

The Freedom to Vote Act is all about such access. No political consultant would advise a client to explain opposition to it with a “Let’s Make Voting Harder Again” speech.

Enter the Senate’s filibuster rules. Because every Republican senator voted against the Freedom to Vote Act last month — and all but one opposed even debating the John Lewis voting rights bill this month — no bill that would do anything worthwhile can reach the 60-vote threshold required to overcome the filibuster.

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Reforming the filibuster is the only way Democrats can pass the voting guarantees favored by civil rights groups and democracy advocates. It’s the only way they can undo the voter suppression and election subversion laws that have been passed in more than a dozen GOP-controlled states since 2020. It’s the only way to dismantle wildly partisan gerrymanders.

This is where the hypocrisy charges come in. It is true that Democrats have used the filibuster to kill Republican bills in the past. It’s true that many Democrats once defended the filibuster. And conservatives can quickly unearth lots of quotations from Democratic senators asserting, well, the opposite of what many Democrats are saying now.

As Rolling Stone’s Andy Kroll pointed out in a thoughtful piece on changing Democratic views of the filibuster, 29 Democratic senators signed a bipartisan letter in 2017 urging Senate leaders to maintain the filibuster and “preserve existing rules, practices, and traditions.” Yes, that was just four years ago, when Democrats were filled with dread over what Donald Trump and a Republican Congress might do — or undo.

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But beyond the fact that the retreat to procedural arguments dodges the substance of the rights at stake, the hypocrisy charge fails on the most basic level: No Democrat or progressive who has flipped on the filibuster is pretending they didn’t. They are quite clear in saying versions of what the Senate arch-traditionalist Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said in 1979: Rules that seemed appropriate in the past “must be changed to reflect changed circumstances.”

And if consistency on the filibuster is your standard, good luck in finding many purists. The loudest critic of changing filibuster rules now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was happy to junk the filibuster in 2017 in his quest to pack the Supreme Court with conservatives. Seems pretty hypocritical to me.

There are two big reasons why senators should vote to reform the filibuster, no matter their past views. The first is institutional: What started out as an unusual practice to extend debate has become a routine method for blocking the will of the majority. To put it starkly: Abuse of the filibuster is wrecking the Senate.

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A 2020 report from the Brennan Center for Justice nicely summarized just how radical the shift has been on the use and abuse of the filibuster. “There have been as many cloture motions in the last 10 years (959),” wrote senior fellow Caroline Fredrickson, “as there were during the 60-year period from 1947 to 2006 (960).”

Her essay, and another earlier this month by Fred Wertheimer, president of the political reform group Democracy 21, underscore how often the Senate has changed its rules, and how the filibuster, established almost by accident in 1806, has no constitutional standing.

But the core reason the filibuster must be reformed is the moral imperative of passing bills to defend democracy. It confronts multiple challenges: to the right to vote; the right to have votes counted without political interference; and the right of voters to select their representatives — and not have politicians do it by drawing wildly partisan district boundaries.

Should Democrats, including President Biden, allow these things to happen by claiming that the filibuster renders them powerless, they will be guilty of a more profound hypocrisy.

If it fails to act, the party that won power in 2020 as the bulwark of democracy and civil rights will be saying that these commitments matter less than fealty to an outdated, dysfunctional practice that has been altered repeatedly in pursuit of far less noble goals.