Everyone had a grand old time mocking Sen. Joe Manchin III for claiming on Tuesday that we’ve had the filibuster for 232 years. This is historically false. What’s more, the West Virginia Democrat’s deeper argument here — that in some sense the filibuster preserves a vision of the Senate in keeping with that of the framers — is also profoundly off-base.
But now Manchin has expanded even further on that deeper argument. And the case he made in this regard captures the essential fallacy of the pro-filibuster position as clearly as one could possibly expect.
The stakes are high. Democrats are making one final push for a package of protections for voting rights and democracy. Given uniform GOP opposition, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will hold a vote soon on whether to suspend the filibuster to pass them.
To his credit, Manchin is open to more modest filibuster reforms, and he has seriously engaged the debate over democracy for months. But by all indications, he and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) will oppose that filibuster carve-out, which all but dooms passage.
Manchin has now offered a new justification for this position.
“I mean, voting is very important. It is a bedrock of democracy,” Manchin told reporters Tuesday. “But to break the opportunity for the minority to participate completely — that’s just not who we are.”
This idea, that even a temporary filibuster carve-out betrays “who we are,” essentially posits that the Senate supermajority requirement is in some sense more faithful to American liberal constitutionalism than protecting voting rights is.
This is absurd. First, the idea that nixing the filibuster would “break the opportunity for the minority to participate completely” is unintentionally revealing about Manchin’s true stance. It’s false on its face: Needing a simple majority to pass legislation doesn’t stop senators from the minority party from entering into negotiations with the majority party to try to influence said legislation.
In fact, ending the filibuster might increase the incentive for a bloc of GOP senators to seek such negotiations. Without it, bills could pass with a majority of fewer than 60 votes, meaning, say, five moderate Republicans would have more opportunities to get on legislation with a real chance of passage, burnishing their bipartisan cred while delivering for constituents. Moderate Democrats who want to be seen working with Republicans would help that happen.
What ending the filibuster actually would stop is the opportunity for the minority party to participate entirely on its own terms. With the filibuster, virtually nothing can pass. This facilitates and encourages a deliberate opposition strategy of denying the president’s party legislative victories to make the government under that party more dysfunctional.
This is the reality of the “opportunity for the minority to participate” that Manchin is personally enabling. And it actually reduces the opportunity for more bipartisan legislation to pass — the opposite of what he suggests.
Second, you know who is actually working hard to “break the opportunity of the minority to participate”? GOP-controlled state legislatures are. They are passing restrictions on voting access in many states, and they’re doing so by simple majority — on a largely partisan basis.
Manchin himself agrees this is a serious problem. That’s why he supports the Freedom to Vote Act, which would curb such GOP efforts by creating baseline standards for early voting, same-day registration and voting by mail, while also limiting partisan capture of election machinery.
What Manchin opposes is achieving those monumentally important things on a partisan basis. But here’s the rub: Either Republicans will keep restricting voting on a partisan basis, or Democrats will protect and expand voting access on a partisan basis. Partisanship will prevail either way. The only question is which partisanship prevails.
By the way, protecting democracy on a partisan basis actually is “who we are,” or at least who we have been. As Jamelle Bouie has detailed, the Civil War amendments that created the foundations for voting rights, and some of the big congressional efforts at civil rights protections that followed, were not bipartisan affairs.
“The fight to protect and advance the civil and voting rights of all Americans has always been more partisan than not,” says Bouie.
Manchin hankers for a time when “who we are” was defined by broad bipartisan participation in the great civil and voting rights legislation of the 1960s. But as Bouie notes, that has little application today:
We are living in an age of high partisanship and deep polarization, where one party has an interest in a broad electorate and an open conception of voting rights, and the other does not. If Congress is going to pass a voting rights bill of any kind, it is going to be on a partisan basis, much the way it was from the end of the Civil War until well into the 20th century.
There is no bipartisan resolution available here. Manchin himself knows this: He spent months searching in vain for GOP support for democracy protections. So Manchin cannot achieve the bipartisanship that he hopes will once again define “who we are.”
Here’s the unpleasant truth Manchin must confront: "Who we are” in this context will be defined by partisanship either way. By refusing to allow Democrats to act, Manchin is inescapably facilitating a more destructive form of partisanship — one that he himself says threatens the “bedrock of democracy” — than the one he is almost single-handedly blocking, and ensuring that the former will define “who we are,” rather than the latter.
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