Normally funerals/memorial services are boring events. That was certainly not the case Thursday at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta when President Obama took to the pulpit to eulogize John Lewis. While its immediate impact is nil; it was far and away the most important thing that happened in American politics last week yet it will go largely unnoticed in the short run. Let’s explore.
Lewis’ life’s work was civil right and that very much included voting rights. In a democracy voting rights are the cornerstone civil right. Obama stressed the importance of voting and outlined the suppression efforts aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at black people. If anyone in America doesn’t think there are significant voter suppression efforts going on in 2020 I suggest they pay a visit to an otolaryngologist, an ophthalmologist or both.
Obama asked for congressional action reinstating the portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the Supreme Court overturned in 2013 in their Shelby County v Holder decision. Then he went on to outline an even more aggressive menu part of that included getting rid of the Senate filibuster.
I doubt many of my readers need it but here is a quick (and incomplete) primer on the Senate filibuster/cloture rule. Basically it takes 60 votes to get anything passed in the Senate. The biggest exception is that it only takes a simple majority to approve presidential nominees for positions requiring Senate consent. That includes Cabinet members and all federal judges including Supreme Court justices. Though it is customary to change the rules of the Senate at the beginning of a Congress, they can be changed at any time by a simple majority.
Younger (describing United States Senators as “younger” just doesn’t seem accurate but after all it is a relative word) Democratic Senators have been calling for that rule change for several years. There are various opinion leaders and influencers among the Democrats but none more powerful than Barack Obama. This is a huge deal which will lead a lot of those on the fence or not ready to publically commit to fall in line behind Obama.
There is reason to believe that the Democrats will take back the Senate in this year’s elections. So you have a lot of progressives “measuring the drapes”. (I’m so concerned about cheating that I’m not counting the chickens prematurely.) The idea is that when the Democrats take control of the Senate they render the Republicans effectively irrelevant by making the body majority rules on everything. (The assumption is that the Democrats will retain the House and Joe Biden will win.) In that scenario everything works perfectly. I see two problems with that scenario; let’s take a look at them.
The first is that it may not happen. If a free and fair election were held today I feel reasonably confident that Biden would win, the Democrats would take back the Senate (albeit by a thin margin) and they would also retain the House (perhaps even picking up a few seats in the process). In the political world there is a lot of time between now and Election Day. I expect several October Surprises. I’m not saying they will be true; but I expect them none the less. As I indicated earlier I expect a lot of what I will collectively call cheating – very possibly extending beyond Election Day.
My other concern is long term. For the sake of this discussion let’s assume the 2020 election goes the way it looks at this point and the Democrats control everything come the afternoon of January 20, 2021. What makes you think it will stay that way forever? Someday the Democrats will be in the Senate minority again and sans the filibuster they will have almost no leverage to guard against bad legislation and appointees. (Look at the current situation and consider Betsy DeVos, Brett Kavanaugh etc.)
Assuming the Democrats take the Senate and change the filibuster rule what makes you think the Republicans would change it back when inevitably they take back the chamber? Only a fool thinks in terms of a permanent majority!
On a purely philosophical political argument the filibuster is downright undemocratic. With it a minority can render a majority irrelevant. The whole idea of a democracy – and despite right wing rhetoric to the contrary America is a representative democracy – is that the majority rules.
As you may have sensed by reading thus far I am afraid of the long term repercussions of getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate. However, with Obama’s backing I think it is lightyears closer to a reality if the Democrats take back the Senate in the next Congress. It also beats the hell out a Republican majority or even a Mitch McConnell led Republican Senate minority with the filibuster intact.
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