Claims that the next Democratic president and Congress can advance a substantial legislative agenda with the filibuster in place are clearly wrong. And the fact that the Democratic agenda is more popular than the Republican one doesn’t mean that public protest will compel Republicans to help a Democratic president get his legislative agenda passed. Instead, even if they are in the minority in the Senate, they’ll just use the filibuster, as they always have.
The legislative filibuster is a bad, anti-democratic procedure that should be eliminated. Just because most of the Democratic senators running for president — most or all of whom will still be in the Senate no matter who wins the Democratic nomination, after all — support keeping the filibuster not doesn’t mean that eliminating it is impossible. Senators tend to publicly voice their support for Senate norms until majorities feel the need to discard them. Mitch McConnell himself has made it his life’s work to dismantle long-standing norms he had long piously claimed to treasure.
But can Democrats ever be this ruthless? They can.
Consider the most relevant example: Senate Democrats decided in 2013 to end the filibuster for most judicial and all executive branch appointments. Many Senate Democrats — including liberals like Vermont’s Pat Leahy, then chairman of the Judiciary Committee — had been strongly committed to upholding Senate traditions and continued to observe them despite a conspicuous lack of reciprocation. But faced with the choice between upholding the filibuster as-is and allowing the Republican minority to prevent Barack Obama from getting any nominees to the nation’s second-most important courts confirmed, they decided to blow it up.
Another important lesson of the partial elimination of the filibuster is that Senate rules are just norms, and are most likely to be changed when the Senate majority has a compelling need to do so. The battle against the filibuster won’t be won based on abstract procedural arguments; the legislative filibuster will be substantially modified or eliminated when it stops a Senate majority from doing something that it really wants to do.
That’s not to say that it will be easy — and, especially if Democrats have only a 50- or 51-member majority in 2021, it will be very difficult. But the fact that many Senate Democrats are claiming to support the filibuster now doesn’t mean they’ll maintain their support in the future — and, in fact, they shouldn’t.
The best shot of getting rid of the filibuster is with legislation that unites all factions of the party — and the For the People Act would fit the bill nicely.