To Move a Progressive Agenda, the Filibuster Must Go

January 14, 2021

With the US Senate elections in Georgia settled, Democrats have regained control of the US Senate with the barest of majorities. They are technically split 50-50 with Republicans, with VP-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker.

In response to this outcome, Senate minority (and likely incoming majority) leader Chuck Schumer was asked at a press conference if progressives are really still pushing him to nuke the legislative filibuster. In response he said:

“We Senate Democrats know we face one of the greatest crises Americans have. We’re united in wanting big, bold change. And we’re going to sit down as a caucus and discuss the best ways to get that done.” 

Reality: Even if Schumer won’t say it directly, Democrats fall 10 votes short of a majority safe from the threat of filibuster. As long as the filibuster remains in place, the American people are headed for a closely divided Senate with little movement and more partisan gridlock.

To pass the big, bold change Schumer says Senate Democrats want—for example, a plan to get to 100 percent clean electricity—the Democrats have only a few options: attempt to work with Republicans, focus only on passing certain big items through a process known as budget reconciliation, or end the filibuster. Roosevelt staff have long argued that the final option, ending the filibuster, is necessary to enact a truly progressive agenda.  

In Fixing the Senate: Equitable and Full Representation for the 21st Century, Roosevelt Director of Governance Studies Todd Tucker argues the Senate has become a deeply counter-majoritarian institution. And, as Tucker notes, it takes only one-half of the senatorial delegation of the state with the smallest population—comprising 0.18 percent of the population—to hold back legislation supported by senators representing the other 99.82 percent of the population. 

In his piece for The Nation, If the Filibuster Remains, the Progressive Agenda Is Doomed Roosevelt Director of Progressive Thought Mike Konczal writes that if the filibuster continues to be exercised in its current form, it will kill any hopes for the progressive agenda and reinforce the most destructive tendencies of the Republican party. As he argues, to overhaul our carbon economy and address its many economic injustices, progressives must be able to pass ambitious legislation. In theory, the filibuster affects both parties, but in reality, it shackles the agenda of progressive Democrats.

And as Roosevelt Program Manager Emily DiVito shows in her new paper, “How the Filibuster Has Hurt American Workers and Protected Corporate Influence,” the filibuster has historically been used to strengthen the power of corporations and weaken workers’ power. Her analysis shows that over the last 74 years, the use of the filibuster in the Senate has prevented the passage of eight bills that would have empowered workers or reined in corporate misconduct. Had these bills passed, they would have, arguably, increased worker power. She concludes that the filibuster will primarily serve as a barrier to pro-worker reforms in the years to come, rather than as a check against anti-worker measures. 

A new session of Congress needs only a simple majority vote to end the filibuster. As a result, the filibuster could be eradicated on day one of the next Senate session.

For too long, the filibuster has impeded progressive policies. It’s time for the filibuster to go.