A European Case in Defense of the Filibuster

Joe Manchin, senior US Senator from West Virginia and only statewide elected Democrat in his state, has been called an “upholder of white supremacy” and has been compared to segregationists for his refusal to abolish the filibuster. Along with moderate Krysten Sinema, Manchin is confronted by reporters about his support of the filibuster on an almost daily basis, as many on the left are keen on ending this long-standing rule.

The fight over the filibuster, however, is just one episode in a much broader battle over the institution of the Senate itself and, by extension, over how the American system of government should work. Much of the progressive movement sees the Senate and the Electoral College as antique, undemocratic institutions holding American government back from accomplishing anything. They point to the rest of the world, especially Europe, as places where government heads take smaller roles, letting governing bodies, like parliament, “gets things done.”

Take it from a European: The messy and old American system is actually pretty good.

The fact of the matter is, European government heads are actually quite powerful. In fact, the US president is pretty weak compared to the leaders of many parliamentary systems. While in both the US and Europe, heads of government have considerable influence over the legislators of their parties, this influence is exaggerated in parliamentary systems because candidate selection is controlled, not by a voting citizenry as in the US, but by the party itself.

Parliamentary government leaders therefore more or less command their congressmen. In Germany, for example, it’s normal to see headlines like “cabinet approves law X,” and that’s essentially the last thing someone will hear about a bill before it becomes law. As long as the party leaders in cabinet agree on something, the passage in parliament is virtually guaranteed. The US president doesn’t have a grip like that on his party’s legislators. And that’s especially due to two features of the US Senate progressives dislike so much: Equal representation per state and the filibuster.

In America, senators and representatives are beholden, not to their president or party leader, but to the people back in their home districts who voted them into office. Blue-state Republicans, red-state Democrats, or moderate politicians from both parties from purple states — all these phenomena are impossible in Europe.

And then there’s the filibuster. It’s another check on the majority party, forcing it to compromise with moderates to get past the 60 vote threshold. It gives the minority the ability to block the ruling party from steamrolling their bills through the legislature. That’s why Joe Biden, with unified control of the government, is less powerful in the US than other world leaders in their home countries. In Europe, for example, the leader of the opposition is often reduced to a mere spokesperson who cannot meaningfully challenge government policy.

For many progressives today, all that may sound very tempting, but they have to keep in mind the consequences: Imagine if Donald Trump had had all the power of Angela Merkel, for example. There is no question that in this case, he could’ve steamrolled his agenda through parliament. Remember back in 2017, the GOP had unified control over Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But Trump had to grapple with both moderate Republicans in the House and Senate, as well as fierce opposition from the Democratic Senate minority. He didn’t get congressional approval for funding the wall, nor was he able to repeal Obamacare — in a Republican-controlled Congress. Virtually all domestic accomplishments of his administration happened in areas where the filibuster was not applicable: Judicial appointments and the 2017 tax cuts (through budget reconciliation).

So even if highly partisan, the US Congress is more effective at constraining the president’s political power and that of his party leadership than parliaments in other countries. And while some Western European nations’ politics might invite progressives to cheer that type of get-it-done government, they should keep in mind that a similar system allows Hungarian right-wing politicians like Viktor Orbán, viewed by many liberals as an autocrat, to rule with a stronghand. Progressives probably don’t see an Orban government as a model for the US. But it enjoys this power thanks to a system of government similar to that in other European countries, which some on the left envy for the way in which the majority can easily push through its progressive policy without input from the minority – just that in some places like Hungary it’s a right-wing government that can ruthlessly push through anything against the will of its progressive opposition.

If progressives ax the filibuster, they’d better hope the right never comes back into power. If they do, you can be sure Congress will pass a conservative wishlist — and a progressive nightmare. “Get it done” means every side can get it done. That’s the lesson from Europe. And it’s already what happened when the Senate under the auspices of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed Trump’s nominees like clockwork, thanks to Democrats abolishing the filibuster for that just years earlier. The pendulum swings back every time.

So what to do with the Senate? Keep it uniquely American, including the filibuster. Don’t model it after parliaments elsewhere in the world in the name of “getting things done,” because in the end, the top ranks of government would end up with far more power. And maybe the solution to the “deadlock” is simple: The more radical your proposal, the more people actually need to be convinced.

Sebastian Thormann is a student at the University of Passau, Germany, and a columnist at the Lone Conservative (US). He has also written for The National Interest, Washington Examiner, CapX and Townhall.com.