Manchin and Sinema Defend the Filibuster Because the Filibuster Defends Corporate Power

The filibuster is not about democratic checks or minority rights. The filibuster is about giving corporations veto power over the economy — which is why Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema defend it.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) speaks during a hearing in Washington, DC, 2021. (Rod Lamkey / Getty Images)

As Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) defend the filibuster and block voting rights legislation, corporate media keeps repeating the lie that the two are doing so because they care deeply about Senate rules and tradition. By doing so, news outlets are refusing to admit the obvious: Sinema and Manchin are just the latest of the Senate’s many corrupt puppets who want to help corporate lobbyists preserve their legislative kill switch.

Amid the high-concept discourse about voting rights, historical precedent, and The Greatest Deliberative Body In The World™, big business has been telegraphing what the filibuster actually is. It is not about democracy or minority rights or any other maudlin subplot from a West Wing episode — it is about something much more raw and ugly. It is about giving capital veto power over the economy, as the most powerful corporate lobby group in Washington effectively admits.

Indeed, the US Chamber of Commerce has publicly opposed filibuster reform for this very reason. Last year, the organization gloated to its members that the rule would prevent Democrats from passing a minimum wage hike or legislation to make it easier for workers to form a union.

“Because of the filibuster, neither can become law as currently written,” the Chamber effused. In a letter to lawmakers, the Chamber expressed concern that without the filibuster, voters could have the power to (gasp!) elect new lawmakers who could actually change public policy.

“Imagine if major portions of federal policy constantly changed on a purely partisan basis every time one or the other party finds itself in unified control of the government,” the group lamented in March 2021 in talking points that have been echoed by Manchin.

And yet, even as Manchin and Sinema parrot Chamber spin — and even as they selectively vote to waive the filibuster when it doesn’t offend corporate power — the two are routinely portrayed as mavericky iconoclasts operating on principle, rather than hucksters lip-synching lyrics from their business boosters.

That is the real story here — and yet it is verboten. Corporate media refuses to tell the story of the money behind the filibuster — even though it is out in the open for everyone to see.

Democratic leaders could spotlight this grift, but instead they are showing their real loyalties when they continue refusing to force Manchin and Sinema to actually vote on the party’s health care, climate, and anti-poverty legislation that their corporate donors oppose.

And at least one of their most prominent defenders, Democratic consultant Paul Begala, is already on national television screaming the quiet part out loud and saying “the problem for the Democrats right now is not that they have bad leaders, they have bad followers” — as if voters’ job is to serve the party, not the other way around.

“Without the Filibuster, Both Might Be the Law of the Land”

The easiest way to follow the filibuster money is to do what corporate media outlets refuse to do: just read the website of the Chamber — a group whose name evokes images of local Elks Club dinners and Main Street businesses, but which is actually a $170 million-a-year lobbying behemoth representing the largest corporations in the world.

The Chamber published a memo last year explaining why the filibuster is so important for businesses.

“For example, within two months, the House of Representatives has passed a $15 national minimum wage and a radical rewrite of U.S. labor law known as the PRO Act,” the organization wrote. “Because of the filibuster, neither can become law as currently written. In a world without the filibuster, both might be the law of the land . . . that is until a Republican unified government repealed them.”

Last March, the Chamber issued a warning to lawmakers that its annual scorecard — which the organization uses to determine its political endorsements — would penalize any senators who vote to reform the filibuster, which currently allows a minority of senators to extend debate on a bill indefinitely unless the majority party can find sixty votes to end cloture.

The organization said it would additionally punish any senators who vote to overrule the advice provided by the senate parliamentarian — an unelected adviser who, under the so-called Byrd rule, can recommend that lawmakers remove certain provisions from budget reconciliation bills if they deal with policy, rather than spending.

The Chamber delivered this threat one day before eight Democratic senators — including Manchin and Sinema — joined with Republicans in voting down an amendment to overrule the parliamentarian’s advice and include $15 minimum wage legislation in Democrats’ COVID-19 spending bill.

Sinema and Manchin’s actions have won them plaudits and campaign cash from the Chamber.

The Chamber shared a Reuters story reporting that the organization has been “backing Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema with campaign contributions, rewarding them for their opposition to some of President Joe Biden’s legislative initiatives and for trying to work with Republicans.”

A few months later, the Chamber bestowed Sinema and Manchin with awards for bipartisanship, giving them 100 percent and 98 percent scores, respectively, for working across party lines to boost corporate priorities.

Parroting Chamber Talking Points

While Beltway journalists suspect there may be a few more holdouts in private, Manchin and Sinema are the only two Democrats who have publicly opposed party leaders’ push to reform the filibuster in order to pass a voting rights bill.

To justify their stance, both senators have been closely echoing the Chamber’s talking points.

Take that aforementioned March 2021 Chamber letter asking lawmakers to “imagine if major portions of federal policy constantly changed” on the basis of election results, as if that might be a bad thing.

Just weeks after that diatribe, Manchin made a similar point in a closed-door meeting with the  National Restaurant Association, a lobbying group representing corporate restaurant chains.

“You get rid of the filibuster and we will not be the country we are for this reason: You’ll have the violent swings, extreme swings, every time there’s an election, whichever party is in power,” said Manchin. “It’ll be no different than a lot of European countries are, no different than a lot of developing countries. It’s whoever’s in power, and basically it swings. Everything’s thrown out and started over. We have been a country and we have grown as a country with a consistency that people could depend on.”

Manchin reiterated that sentiment in a statement last week. “The filibuster plays an important role in protecting our democracy from the transitory passions of the majority and respecting the input of the minority in the Senate,” he said. “Contrary to what some have said — protecting the role of the minority, Democrat or Republican, has protected us from the volatile political swings we have endured over the last 233 years.”

Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) made more or less the same argument on the senate floor last week. “Tax and spending priorities would change, safety net programs would change, national security policy could change,” the private equity kingpin lamented.

Sinema has been hewing even more closely to the Chamber’s talking points, employing very similar language.

The Chamber wrote last March that “cloture rules serve a critical role in ensuring that legislative proposals are considered in a deliberative manner that involves discussion between members of the majority and minority parties. Removing these requirements and attempting to pass legislation on a partisan, majoritarian basis is likely to result in rushed, ill-considered legislation that lacks the buy-in necessary to create durable, long-term policy. Such changes would also further erode what is already very diminished trust in our democratic institutions.”

The organization added that it “looks forward to working with members of Congress from both parties to find ways to achieve real and lasting solutions to the problems confronting America.”

In a Washington Post op-ed defending the filibuster last year, Sinema wrote: “Arizonans expect me to do what I promised when I ran for the House and the Senate: to be independent — like Arizona — and to work with anyone to achieve lasting results,” she wrote. “Lasting results — rather than temporary victories, destined to be reversed, undermining the certainty that America’s families and employers depend on. The best way to achieve durable, lasting results? Bipartisan cooperation.”

Sinema also made similar comments in her own appearance before the National Restaurant Association.

“I believe that achieving lasting results on the issues that matter to everyday Americans really requires bipartisan solutions,” Sinema said. “So what I’m telling my colleagues is that we cannot accept a new standard by which important legislation only passes on party line votes. If we were to accept that, it would set the stage for permanent partisan dysfunction, it would deepen the divisions that exist within our country, and it would further erode Americans’ confidence in their government, which we know is a challenge we face already.”

In her senate floor speech last week opposing filibuster reforms, which Sinema made just before Biden was set to meet with senators to lobby for changing the rules to pass a voting rights bill, she once again emphasized the need to “achieve lasting results for Arizona and this country.”

Corporate Media Is Repeating the Spin

Manchin and Sinema’s behavior is only nonconformist, rogue, confusing, and erratic if you somehow ignore the obvious through line: unyielding fealty to the corporate cash flooding into their campaign coffers.

First, the pair helped block the $15 minimum wage measure — and together, they have stalled and substantially whittled down Biden’s Build Back Better social spending bill. That includes convincing Democrats to scrap their plans to include dental and vision benefits in Medicare. Sinema separately helped significantly pare back the party’s plan to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

The filibuster fight is more of the same: the two are protecting Corporate America’s fail-safe bulwark against the government ever giving voters the economic policies they want. And yet, rather than telling that story, corporate media has opted to treat Manchin and Sinema as honest brokers and repeat whatever they say.

In recent days, several prominent Beltway journalists have been quite smarmy about the fact that Sinema and Manchin have said for much of the past year that they don’t want to reform the filibuster.

“Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema have been abundantly clear for some time they would not support any sort of exception to allow this to pass and change the filibuster rules to do just that,” CNN chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju said of Democrats’ voting rights push. “But inexplicably to some Democrats and a lot of Republicans, the administration and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, have made this front and center and their agenda knowing full well that the votes simply are not there.”

Jake Sherman, founder of the corporate-soaked tip sheet Punchbowl News, tweeted: “So, to review, Manchin and Sinema are where they have been for several months: unwilling to get rid of the filibuster because they support the filibuster, as they have said — but some around town choose to not believe.”

“Kyrsten Sinema preempts Biden, dashing Democrats’ illogical hopes she would move on the filibuster,” declared the Washington Post’s Paul Kane, who added that Sinema “has repeatedly taken stands in defense of the 60-vote supermajority for most legislation to pass the Senate.”

This is meant to be smart analysis — saying that politicians have said certain things. It would be a much more valuable use of time to ask why Manchin and Sinema are actively blocking Democrats from passing virtually any legislation, and to assess their arguments for doing so.

Unfortunately, corporate journalists are instead treating anything Sinema and Manchin say as a law of nature — a thing that cannot be questioned, interrogated, or scrutinized.

News outlets like CNN keep saying that Manchin and Sinema have “long expressed opposition” to eliminating the filibuster, neglecting to mention that Manchin cosponsored and voted in favor of two bills to modify filibuster rules in 2011 — information that remains on the senator’s website.

The New York Times decided to relay the traditionalist argument, writing that Manchin and Sinema “had stated repeatedly that they would not use the bare 50-vote Democratic majority to weaken the filibuster, the procedural weapon that effectively requires 60 votes to move forward on major legislation, which they argue is fundamental to the nature of the Senate.”

And journalists are also accepting the fallacy that lawmakers can at once support popular policies while pledging to uphold the filibuster that blocks those same policies.

“Sinema made crystal-clear during her speech that while she supports voting and election reform bills, she ‘will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,’” Politico wrote.

Kane at the Post similarly noted that Manchin and Sinema “support the two election bills that Democrats have passed multiple times in the House, designed to guarantee access to the polls and to curb partisan practices like gerrymandering, but only if Democrats round up at least 10 Republicans to clear the 60-vote hurdle to end a filibuster and move to a final vote.”

The Associated Press wrote that “Both Manchin and Sinema say they support the [voting rights] package, which has passed the House, but they are unwilling to change the Senate rules to muscle it through that chamber over Republican objections.”

This is all nonsense. By refusing to reform the filibuster, Manchin and Sinema have made clear that they don’t want those voting rights bills to become law. Protecting their corporate allies is far more important.