As Georgia Goes, So Goes the Senate…and the Country

Voters in Georgia can change America’s future if they elect two Democrats to represent them in the U.S. Senate. They can stop the Senate from acting as a tool by which a minority—mostly rich white men—have blocked policies that could benefit a majority of Americans. Senators have done so by developing the filibuster and other rules to prevent a Senate vote on legislation they dislike. These tactics have been perfected by the leader of Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, to stop the upper house from voting on any kind of progressive legislation such as Covid relief funding.

Senate rules now permit senators to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless “three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn” (usually 60 out of 100 senators) vote to bring debate to a close by invoking “cloture” under Senate Rule XXII. Even if a filibuster attempt is unsuccessful, the process takes floor time.

If two more Senate seats go to Democrats, this would create a 50-50 balance of power that can be tipped by the presiding officer, Vice President Kamala Harris. A light in the dark tunnel of Washington politics is that there is cause for hope.  To eliminate the filibuster would be much easier than to eliminate the Electoral College. It does not require a Constitutional amendment but can be accomplished  by a simple majority vote—not a supermajority. If Democrats can muster fifty-one votes (with Vice President Harris), they can rule out future filibusters and prevent Republicans from dictating the Senate agenda and terms of debate.  Americans and their elected representatives  could still disagree sharply on many issues,  but both bodies of Congress could begin to act on pressing issues.  Mitch McConnell could remain leader of Senate Republicans, but could no longer exert a stranglehold on any issue that arises.

Without the filibuster, McConnell would lose the kill switch by which he keeps the Senate from voting on key issues. Adam Jentleson, an aide to former Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, has written a book to be published in January that explains why the U.S. government functions so poorly. The book’s title sums up the whole story:  Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern State and the Crippling of American Democracy (Liveright, 2021). Jentleson tells how liberals as well as conservatives have exploited the filibuster over the years. . From its inception in the middle of the 19th century to today, the filibuster has served as a tool to empower a minority of white conservatives to override majority rule whenever they find themselves outnumbered. They have done so to preserve their power, their way of life, and the priorities of wealthy benefactors–from the slaveholders of the past to conservative billionaires of today.

Democrats as well as Republicans have used the filibuster to protect their narrow interests. But there is reason to hope that Democrats in  the new Congress will stick together against any effort to thwart a progressive agenda.

The United States confronts many problems besides an often pigheaded Senate. But because Congress lies at the heart of our government, the solutions to these problems must pass through the Senate—with few if any exceptions. What was once a free-flowing body of relative equals has devolved into a rigidly hierarchical, polarized institution that fails year after year to resolve persistent problems.

Everyone has a stake in having a government that honors majority rule but that also respects and hears what minorities have to say. Conservatives as well as liberals should welcome open debate and fair play in both houses of the legislature.  So long as part of the Senate retains a kill switch, it is difficult to see how Americans can meet the challenges they face. With a Senate that functions, solutions may suddenly appear within reach.  The voters of Georgia can make that happen and help the government work for all Americans. .

Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is the author Complexity Science and World Affairs and the Republican Virus in the Body Politic.