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Democrats Can’t Push a Progressive Agenda Without Smashing the Filibuster

A Democratic leadership that trumpets its support for progressive legislation while refusing to abolish the filibuster looks more interested in pantomiming a fake reformist agenda than actually realizing one.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has declared support for the PRO Act. (Flickr)

In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, Senator Joe Manchin this week declared his support for the PRO Act. On its face at least, Manchin’s endorsement seems out of character — the conservative Democrat’s name by this point has become a shorthand for the governing party’s lack of a working majority in the Senate despite its nominally majoritarian contingent. The legislation, after all, would effectively represent the most significant overhaul of American labor law in more than half a century, making unions both easier to form and harder to break. For this reason alone, no newly declared support for the act from a sitting lawmaker — especially in the Senate, where the bill is now pending after its passage through the House — should be dismissed outright or considered unwelcome.

Nevertheless, Manchin’s posture has an obvious wrinkle: namely that the senator from West Virginia also used a column in the Washington Post earlier this month to reiterate his unwavering commitment to the filibuster — the Senate rule which effectively requires sixty votes to pass many pieces of legislation even if a majority is willing to vote in favor. “It’s no accident that a state as small as West Virginia has the same number of senators as California or Texas,” Manchin wrote, mounting a familiar defense of the Senate’s anti-majoritarian tendencies:

…The Founding Fathers understood that the challenges facing a rural or small state would always be very different from a more populous state…. The filibuster is a critical tool to protecting that input and our democratic form of government. That is why I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.

As Jacobin’s Branko Marchetic pointedly observed in 2019, the filibuster does indeed have a lengthy track record when it comes to protecting minority rights: particularly if the minority in question is either a small group of right-wing lawmakers or the extremely rich. Notwithstanding some occasions in which it has been used for good, the mechanism is ultimately difficult to extricate from its history of obstructing legislation designed to rectify an unjust status quo: having been used to torpedo the likes of anti-lynching bills, civil rights bills, antidiscrimination laws, and innumerable other initiatives resisted by a white conservative minority.

It’s worth pausing to note here just how profoundly anti-majoritarian and antidemocratic the filibuster really is. Given the Senate’s overall design (which Manchin’s op-ed specifically praises), lawmakers representing as little as 11 percent of America’s population are effectively empowered to prevent any bill from ever coming to a vote on the floor — the proverbial cherry on top of what is arguably the most unrepresentative major legislature anywhere in the world.

The Senate, of course, would remain hideously undemocratic even without the filibuster in place, retaining its ability to block legislation with a majority of popular support even if the current sixty vote threshold were to be eliminated. In this respect, Manchin’s argument is both misleading and incorrect, even if we accept the dubious premise that every state from California (population: 39.3 million) to Wyoming (population: 580,000) deserves equal representation.

Needless to say, his support for the PRO Act (though certainly welcome) doesn’t really increase the likelihood of it passing as long as the filibuster remains in place — a posture that’s currently mirrored by the United States’ new presidential administration as it approaches the conclusion of its first hundred days in office. Despite some recent noises about the possibility of reforming the filibuster, Joe Biden has categorically ruled out its elimination: a position that makes it very unlikely that much of his own agenda (at least as officially stated) will ever become reality. From the PRO Act to gun control legislation, from health care reform to voting rights and a $15 minimum wage, opposition can be expected from all or most of the Senate’s Republican caucus (to say nothing of opposition to these measures from Democratic lawmakers themselves).

With a Democratic president in office and the Trump era finally in the rearview mirror, some commentators have rather prematurely announced the dawn of a new era of liberal reform — a narrative often animated more by Biden’s stated ambitions than anything his administration has yet made into law. As is true of Manchin’s posture, the president’s endorsement of transformative initiatives like the PRO Act is undeniably a good thing.

A Democratic leadership that will announce its support for progressive legislation while refusing to abolish the filibuster, however, ultimately looks more interested in pantomiming a reformist agenda than actually realizing one.