As discussion of reforming the filibuster has picked up, a myth has sprouted up alongside it. This myth says the filibuster is the primary key to bipartisanship in the U.S. Senate. Reform the filibuster, or worse do away with it completely, and bipartisanship will become extinct, according to the myth.
It’s time to bust that myth. I know firsthand how bipartisanship actually works in the Senate, and I can attest that the filibuster is not an essential ingredient to bipartisanship. Full stop.
To have bipartisanship, some members from both parties need to agree on what the problem is and on how to solve it. If this doesn’t happen, there will be no bipartisanship whether the filibuster is on the table or not. I spent eight years working with Sen. John McCain to advance and negotiate one of the last comprehensive bipartisan pieces of legislation to be enacted — the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act of 2002 — and the filibuster was an obstacle, not an assist, in the process.
Genuinely bipartisan legislation is so rare in the modern era that the few examples of it gain notoriety. The 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Budget Act was one. McCain-Feingold was another. The most recent was the 2013 Toomey-Manchin bill on gun control, which did not pass in the end.
McCain and I joined forces because we agreed on the problem, that money had too much influence in our elections and in politics generally. But this is the important part: We also agreed on the solution, that we needed comprehensive campaign finance reform. We deliberated at length about the nuts and bolts of the legislation, but bipartisanship was possible because we started from a place of agreement on the problem and the solution.
Today, Democrats and Republicans do not agree on what the problem is, let alone what the solution is, when it comes to critical issues including voting rights, labor rights, climate change, or immigration. Keeping the filibuster in its current form will not change this, but it will almost certainly prevent any legislation on these issues from passing.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s sudden defense of the filibuster as necessary for bipartisanship is a rewriting of history.
McCain and I first started working on campaign finance reform as far back as 1995. It didn’t start as a Democratic or Republican idea, with one side having to work to persuade the other to sign on. The bill was overwhelmingly bipartisan from the start — I was a Democrat, McCain was a Republican, and the first senators to contact us to co-sponsor the bill were two Republicans, Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine.
McCain-Feingold would have passed years earlier had it needed only a simple majority to pass. And even with a simple majority, it would have been bipartisan, since all along there were Republicans who supported it. And still, it would take us eight years to move the legislation across the finish line — because of the filibuster.
McConnell sought to block McCain-Feingold from its inception, in spite of its bipartisanship, and his greatest tool in doing so was the filibuster. He took pride in thwarting the legislation despite the fact that it enjoyed support within his own party, claiming at one point that if it “were whittled down any further, only the effective date would remain.” While I take issue with this description, McConnell’s intent was clear.
The filibuster is a Senate rule that empowers a minority of senators to thwart the will of a majority of senators. That’s its purpose and its power.
There is no bipartisan-inducing power to the number 60. The filibuster would be just as effective at thwarting a bill backed by 25 Democrats and 26 Republicans as it is at thwarting a bill backed by 51 senators of the same party. The current Senate could achieve bipartisanship with 51 senators, or even 55 or 56. And yet in such an instance of bipartisanship, the filibuster would still be lethal, just as it was for many years with McCain-Feingold.
I’ll be honest and say I do not think McCain-Feingold would be possible today. This is not because campaign finance reform is no longer needed. Quite the opposite; never have we needed such reform more. But today’s partisanship makes that of the 1990s and early 2000s look benign. Senators are now vilified on social media and the internet if they dare cross the aisle. It is this political reality that is thwarting bipartisanship.
The GOP’s perpetuation of the myth that the filibuster inspires bipartisanship is mere subterfuge. To achieve 60 votes on critical issues like voting rights or immigration in today’s hyperpartisan world, a bill would likely consist of little more than the effective date, as McConnell sought with McCain-Feingold.
The filibuster should be reformed, and bipartisanship should be pursued. These are separate issues and separate discussions. One should happen soon. The other is an ongoing struggle that involves senators and their voters, not Senate procedure.
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