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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Senate Filibuster Holding Up Progress

The Biden Administration’s plans to tackle the nation’s infrastructure woes and to combat climate change are among the top policy issues stuck in the U.S. Senate.  The President’s plans have passed the House of Representatives, but the razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate makes progress slow going.

With Western North America in flames, and unprecedented floods across the globe, you’d think that addressing climate change would be an easy lift – new roads, bridges, and mass transit systems need to be upgraded in order to handle the more savage storms and heat waves that result from global warming.

But it’s not.

The greed of the oil companies and the cravenness of their Congressional toadies muck up any progress.  When our democracy fails to respond to serious crises, it makes sense to examine what’s wrong with the system.

In the same way as the oil companies deceived the public and shoveled money to candidates who mouthed their lies, the propaganda wars over American elections continues to undermine our democracy.

In the same way that the political and public relations consultants helped fuel the war against science in responding to the climate crisis, a new propaganda war is playing out over elections.

Former President Trump continues to pound away on the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and that widespread voter fraud was the culprit.  And just like the cynical lies used to block measures to combat global warming, the claims of widespread voter fraud simply do not exist.  Yet millions believe those lies.

As a result, states across the nation are debating and implementing new ways to make it harder to vote under the guise of fighting that non-existent widespread voter fraud.  That’s right, even though all Americans over the age of 18 have a right to vote, the Big Lie of a stolen election is being used to make voting more difficult and to get rid of elections administrators regardless of party affiliation who based their actions on facts, not ideology.

It’s a very bad turn of events.  It is not hard to see the road to authoritarianism if they succeed.

What should be done?  Among the pile of important issues stuck in the molasses of U.S. Senate decision-making is a proposal for the Congress to establish a voting “floor” below which no state can go.  That floor would include basic voting rights that make casting a ballot easier, not harder. 

The measure, introduced as Senate bill 1, matches a House version, which has already passed that chamber.  The bill relies on the nation’s “best practices” when it comes to elections, including automatic voter registration, and nationwide early voting.  The bill also supports restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act, would require independent redistricting in all states, and establish a voluntary system of public financing that relies on small donations – not big campaign contributions.

But it’s stuck in the Senate mud.  In the Senate, the rules in place say that 60 votes are needed to avoid a filibuster that can stop legislation in its tracks.  In the current Senate divide – both parties having 50 members –uniform Senate Republican opposition is blocking approval of the legislation.

Unless something is done about limiting the filibuster, it’s hard to imagine success in approving the elections measure.

But there is a way.  The Senate has trimmed back the use of the filibuster rule in the case of approving federal judges.  Most recently, in April 2017, the Republican Senate majority changed the rule to allow a simple majority to approve US Supreme Court nominees, which enabled the nomination of Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch to proceed to a vote.

Why not apply the same rule for appointing Supreme Court nominees to measures to protect American democracy?

New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer has to decide whether to make such a move.  Of course, he needs all Senate Democrats and the Vice President to agree to the change, and not all of those Senators are on board right now. 

Senator Schumer is the Majority Leader because he is an expert in moving that Chamber.  If and when he makes his move could determine the future of American democracy and world.

With so much at stake, the Senate must act – to both reduce the existential threat posed by global warming as well as to preserve our democracy.  Let’s hope it does.  The alternatives are harrowing.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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