Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders is the Democratic frontrunner in the 2020 race. But he has taken some criticism for refusing to back reform of the filibuster. “No, I’m not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster,” he said in his first interview of the campaign season.
Part of his argument is that it would benefit the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump. Which is somewhat true — the GOP-led Senate would have an easier time passing bills. But with Democrats controlling the U.S. House, it’s tough to see anything really partisan getting through anytime soon.
But Sanders was once a quite feisty proponent of filibuster reform. In 2013, Sanders gave a pretty good speech decrying what the filibuster had become — basically an excuse for a Senator to deny cloture and go off and fundraise with lobbyists — rather than the ideal it once was. He voted against weak filibuster reform that did too little to reform the process:
“Most Americans grew up believing that in America the majority rules. That is not the case in the Senate,” Sanders added. “For many years now, especially since President Obama has been in office, it has taken 60 votes to pass any significant piece of legislation. When Lyndon Johnson was majority leader in the 1950s, he filed cloture to end a filibuster only once. Majority Leader Reid has filed cloture 390 times.
“The Senate is not the House and the minority party must be treated with respect and given the opportunity to offer amendments and make their case in opposition. A minority must not, however, be allowed to permanently obstruct the wishes of the majority. That is not democracy. That is a perversion of democracy.
“In my view, if a senator or a group of senators are strenuously opposed to legislation they have the right and duty to come to the floor and, for as long as they want, engage in a talking filibuster by explaining to the American people the reasons for their objection. They should not, however, continue to have the right to abuse arcane Senate rules to block a majority of senators from acting on behalf of the American people.”
It’s possible Sanders simply thinks it’s a safer option under a Democratic president (or under himself). But the debate over whether or not we should have a filibuster in its current form shouldn’t be partisan — we should design the best form of government that benefits democracy, not that benefits a single party. And besides, the current prospects for hyper-partisan legislation under Trump are very slim. So why is Sanders so reticent to deep-six this anachronistic policy that, despite how it’s been portrayed in Hollywood films, doesn’t even require Senators to go to the floor and talk their jaws off. We can bring back the reality of Huey Long reading his oyster recipes, if someone like Sanders shows some leadership.