A “Jimmy Stewart Filibuster” Would Pass HR 1 & Save American Democracy

If we don’t stop Republican obstruction democracy is doomed

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HR1, the For The People Act, is probably the most consequential piece of legislation of the century. Consequential, at least, in the positive sense: with GOP voter suppression efforts spreading across the country, the future of both the Democratic Party and democracy itself is on the line.

As First Lady Michelle Obama said, “I urge the Senate to follow suit and pass this bill as soon as possible — because there is nothing more important to the health and future of our democracy than safeguarding the right to vote.”

This bill would reform our election process to make it cleaner, fairer, more secure and easier to audit. It would effectively block most of the Republican voter suppression efforts that are now making their way through state legislatures to make it harder to vote.

It would also end the process of politicians picking their voters rather than the other way around, something called gerrymandering. And it would make it more difficult for billionaires and corporations on the left or the right to hide the way they’re using their money to influence politics.

All of which is why Republicans are going to filibuster it.

Most Americans think the filibuster is what was portrayed in Frank Capra’s 1939 movie, starring Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

They believe that if senators have a principled objection to a piece of legislation, they can simply stand on the floor of the Senate and pontificate about it, preventing any possibility of a vote on it as long as the filibuster supporters remain together on the floor of the Senate and one of them is standing and speaking. When they and all their friends have exhausted all their words or can’t keep 40 senators in the chamber, then the vote happens.

In actual practice, however, that’s not how it works at all. All a Republican has to do to filibuster a Democratic bill (or vice a versa) is to simply object to a vote being held on that particular piece of legislation. They can even do it by email.

At that point, the side that has introduced the legislation has to gather 60 votes for passage, 10 more than needed for a majority when you include the Vice President’s vote.

Democrats used this against crackpot Republican Supreme Court nominees for years, until Mitch McConnell decided that enough was enough and ended the filibuster as it applied to SCOTUS nominees so he could get Brett Kavanaugh a lifetime appointment on the Court.

The filibuster can be eliminated by a simple majority vote in the Senate. All 50 Democrats plus Vice President Harris could pull it off.

Ironically, because it’s a simple change to the rules of the Senate rather than a piece of legislation, the process of ending the filibuster cannot be filibustered.

But at least two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have explicitly said they’re opposed to ending the filibuster because both have said, they think that the idea of debate is essential and intrinsic to the Senate itself.

Senator Sinema said she wanted to keep the filibuster so the Senate could “fully consider, debate, and reach compromise on legislative issues that will affect all Americans.” Without the filibuster, Joe Manchin said, the Senate would simply become a smaller version of the US House of Representatives, something he “would not tolerate.”

Yet, at this moment, the future of American democracy rests on the passage of HR1 and its process for cleaning up our highly corrupted electoral system.

If the filibuster is standing in its way, and these two senators and perhaps a few others are opposed to ending it, how about an alternative? Let’s simply reform the filibuster so debate is actually encouraged, senators can’t just email in their objection, and a vote will ultimately happen if the filibustering senators can’t hold their caucus together.

If the Senate were to adopt a new set of rules around the filibuster that make it work pretty much the way it did in Jimmy Stewart‘s movie, the Senate could have hours, even days of debate but eventually would have to get around to a vote which would win or lose by a simple majority.

That’s called democracy.

There’s not a single senator who, if he or she won their election by a single vote, would fail to take their seat in the United States Senate. They’re all in favor of democracy when it comes to their own elections.

Having a “Jimmy Stewart filibuster” would force the objecting party to actually come up with arguments, and all of America could see and hear those arguments. The objectors would have to actually work on behalf of their objection!

So let’s change the rules of the Senate to say that there can be plenty of debate, lots of debate, hours and even days of debate as long as all 40 of the objecting senators remain on the floor of the Senate, but at the end, there must be a vote and when that vote is taken the majority will prevail…as the Founders intended.

(originally published at https://thomhartmann.medium.com/a-jimmy-stewart-filibuster-would-pass-hr-1-save-american-democracy-80a520fb26f