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The Anti-Filibuster Armies Are Mounting Up

A small universe of activists have no intention of letting Biden’s affection for Senate norms capsize his agenda.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has, unsurprisingly, intensified conversations in Democratic circles about the structural obstacles that a Biden presidency would inevitably face. Whether or not Biden chooses to acknowledge as much, passing, implementing, and defending the major items of his policy agenda will require, at minimum, eliminating the Senate filibuster and, most likely, reforming what will soon be a 6–3 conservative Supreme Court. As helpful as it would be for Biden to make a public case for these proposals himself, it will mostly be up to Democrats in Congress to pursue them. To that end, organizers are already mobilizing to ensure pivotal lawmakers understand that reform has become a non-negotiable demand for the party’s activists.

On Wednesday, Fix Our Senate, a large coalition of organizations established earlier this year to push Democrats on eliminating the Senate filibuster, kicked its advocacy campaign into high gear with a livestream that featured a remarkable testimonial roll call, as leaders of groups ranging from the NAACP to the Sunrise Movement offered up issue-based cases for moving to simple majority rule. T. Christian Heyne, the vice president for policy at Brady: United Against Gun Violence, for instance, spoke about the filibuster as an obstacle to popular gun control measures. “I sat in the gallery in 2013 when the filibuster was used to prevent a universal background check—just a law that makes it so that a background check has to be done when you’re selling a weapon,” he said. “We’ve got to do better. This isn’t abstract. This is tangible. This is life and death.”

Ady Barkan of Be a Hero, speaking about the defeat of the public option in 2009, agreed. “If it had become law, the public option would have covered tens of millions of people by now, creating huge pressure on the private sector to rein in costs and improve the quality of coverage,” he said. “Instead, the public option died in the Senate. It had the support of more than 51 senators, but it was killed by the anti-democratic, racist filibuster. A decade later, our health care crisis is worse than ever.”

Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, reached back even further into the Democratic Party’s legislative past. “In the early 1990s, we were told that if we worked our butts off and we elected progressives into the House and the Senate, we would get anti–strike replacement legislation,” he recalled. “Never happened. The excuse was the filibuster. And again, in 2009, in a year of hope and change, our hopes were dashed. And we never got the Employee Free Choice Act that would have leveled the playing field for working people. Again, because of the filibuster and the fear of the filibuster.”

“Sisters and brothers,” he continued, “this is serious. We have to win this election. We have to get progressives in office after the election. But we have to ask, what’s the point of winning elections, if we can’t govern after we win? This is what this fight is about.”

A moment later, Gebre announced that the AFL-CIO’s labor councils would begin collecting Fix Our Senate’s petitions supporting the filibuster’s elimination—a clear sign the matter is now a priority for the country’s major unions.

The mounting general pressure represented by Fix Our Senate’s member organizations and partners is already being channeled into targeted campaigns against the filibuster’s remaining defenders in the Senate Democratic caucus. Wednesday’s livestream featured Amar Shergill of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus. “We have a senator in Feinstein who’s an obstacle right now,” he said. “Let’s be frank, we’re going to have to work hard and pressure her.” He was joined by Amy Halsted of the 32,000-member-strong Maine People’s Alliance, who called out Senator Angus King. “Senator King ran in 2012 saying that he would fix the broken Senate and end the abuse of the filibuster,” she noted. “We’ve been disappointed to hear some of his more recent comments defending the filibuster. So we’re going to be working harder to make sure that Senator King knows where Mainers stand on this.”

The event’s headliners were King’s Senate colleagues Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley. Both have been leading the charge against the filibuster for some time and both shared their optimism about where the caucus is headed. “They saw the horror show,” Merkley said, “in 2009, 2010, when Mitch McConnell used his McConnell veto—that is the requirement of a supermajority to make progress on policy—to completely hamstring the effort to take on good housing, health care, education, living-wage jobs, the Equality Act, climate change, all immigration reform, workers’ rights, labor rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights. That’s why—I’m excited about it—the senators are saying we have come to understand, and we now are moving in the direction of recognizing that this reform is necessary.”

Warren and Merkley also took time to dismantle some of the main arguments against the filibuster’s elimination and to illustrate the unique burden it places on Democrats. “Think about the flip side of this,” Warren said. “What is it that Mitch McConnell wants to accomplish by being in the Senate? What does he want to do? Cut taxes and confirm judges for lifetime appointments. Neither one of those is subject to the filibuster. So, look at how that works. If we want to help people, if we want to strengthen unions, if we want to provide health care, if we want to protect Dreamers, if we want to increase social security, Mitch gets a veto. If Mitch wants to cut taxes again for the rich and the powerful or confirm racist, anti–health care, anti-voting judges to the court, do we get a veto? No.”

“We are in this situation,” Merkley added later, “where if they want to pass something else in the future, they’re happy to change the rules again. They’ve done it time and time again. So nothing we’re doing now makes it more likely that they’ll do something in the future. Because every time they run into the obstacle, they eliminate it.” These points are already starting to change the minds of Senate moderates like Delaware’s Chris Coons.

Eli Zupnick, spokesperson for Fix Our Senate, told The New Republic that he was particularly encouraged by a recent interview with Montana Senator Jon Tester. “He told National Review that he is open to changes if Republicans do nothing but obstruct the agenda that people support,” he said. “So I feel good. I feel like more and more people understand what is at stake. More and more people understand how the issues that they care about—from climate change to immigration, to gun safety, economic inequality—are connected to the Senate rule that could block any progress on them.”

As former President Obama made clear in his eulogy for Representative John Lewis in July, the Senate’s procedures and America’s political institutions, broadly speaking, have also played a role in stymieing racial progress. And racial justice activists are beginning to make that case for reform explicitly. One of the groups that partnered with Fix Our Senate for Wednesday’s event was Just Democracy, itself a coalition of around 30 Black- and brown-led organizations making a racial justice case not only for eliminating the filibuster but also for granting statehood to Washington, D.C., abolishing the Electoral College, and reforming the judiciary.

In an interview this week, Stephany Spaulding of Truth and Conciliation, a Just Democracy group that supports the creation of a federal commission to study America’s racial history, underlined the particular significance of a conservative Supreme Court to minority communities. “The reality is, everything is at stake,” she says. “We have the way in which the court has dismantled the Voting Rights Act and the way in which Black and brown people have access to the franchise. When I think about reproductive justice and reproductive health, Black women in this country in maternal health and family planning have been disproportionately facing the greatest harm.”

This is a case for court reform more potent, immediate, and difficult for Democratic leaders to ignore than analyses of the judiciary in the abstract, and activists know it. “When we have people who are closest to the trauma speaking of their pain, this isn’t just the idea of democracy reform—this is tangible to our experiences, “ Spaulding says. “And the reality is that these systems, these rules, have impeded the quality of life for Black and brown people across this country for generations.”

Maurice Mitchell, National Director of the Working Families Party, agrees and says the work of Just Democracy represents an important departure from arguments that, in his words, insist that “we should have a pristine democracy because the Founding Fathers said so.”

“To me, this is a needed intervention,” he says. “So that folks understand the direct relationship between the far right’s years of packing the courts and police reform and our civil liberties or reproductive rights or our economic freedom. There’s a relationship there—it’s no coincidence, for example, that D.C. is a historically Black city and also has no representation. This just flies in the face of calling ourselves a democracy. Weaving in that sort of analysis that is rooted in people’s experience, not just talking about ‘good governance.’ I think that’s a necessary intervention.”

It’s an intervention that may well work on both ambivalent Democratic voters and, in turn, ambivalent Democratic holdouts in Congress. Only time will tell. It can already be said, though, that the days of leaving the case for structural reforms to political scientists, law professors, and explainer journalists are firmly over. A vast and growing constellation of Democratic groups have taken up the cause. And they will be heard.