The following interview was recorded during our 7/10/21 video call with Leah Greenberg, co-founder of Indivisible, who spoke to us about Deadline for Democracy and filibuster reform. Leah’s answers have been summarized below.
We had 340 events in states hitting every single Democratic senator. We’ve had a ton of local media coverage. I’ll have to confirm the actual number of media impressions, but I believe it’s in the tens of millions. This is one of those things where we really want to make sure that politicians are hearing the drum beat in their own home turf, so we have been really proud to work with hundreds of Indivisible groups to make that happen.
There are a bunch of really exciting things that are in the works. The Transformative Justice Coalition is going to be doing a July 17 event. The Poor People’s Campaign is going to be escalating in the Senate over the course of the coming month. They're calling for ending the filibuster, passing S1, and demanding a $15 minimum wage. We're going to be supporting both of those efforts. There are a couple of different marches in DC that folks are thinking about. There is a late August march that is being led by a set of civil rights organizations we're planning to back. I think it’s important to support the leadership of the civil rights community, recognizing that fundamentally this is about voter access; it's about voter suppression; it's about the continuation of a decades-old campaign specifically to stop BIPOC folks from voting, so we want to make sure that we're showing up in support of the folks who are going to be leading in the civil rights aspect of this fight.
It's a great question. I feel silly even trying to explain it honestly because it is such a ridiculous rule, but basically the filibuster is the equivalent of if you were editing a document and you took out a clause accidentally and put it somewhere else, and suddenly everybody thought, okay well that's that. It's what it is and that's how we're going to do things from now on. That is literally how it came about, but it is basically saying that while you need only 50 votes to pass legislation, you need 60 votes to move to a vote on legislation. If you don't have enough votes to kill a bill but you have enough votes to filibuster, then you can still functionally kill the bill as long as this is observed. There are a lot more variations on it; it has been reformed over the years. The actual filibuster that you see in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington has itself been changed; it’s no longer the way that the filibuster actually works. It's even easier for people to stop legislation now than it was then. Back then it actually required you to stand on the floor and talk the entire time. Now, any member of the Senate can notify the majority leader (by email) that they intend to filibuster a bill and usually it just gets pulled from the calendar. It is that simple.
I actually don't know the origin of the name. It's wacky, isn't it? It has lasted this long because in general when folks who are in the majority recognize that at some point they'll be in the minority again, they like having tools that will protect what they feel strongly about. There was a time when it was quite common that even if you were not going to vote for the ultimate bill, it was common to allow the bill to go to the floor, where you would vote against it. That was the norm for a really long time. People broke that norm in order to filibuster things that they were particularly focused on or cared a lot about; they put a huge amount of effort into blocking bills. There was a different level of collegiality or shared norms within the Senate that I think is important to dig into here. A lot of the lofty assertions about the filibuster revolve around this vision of a golden era of compromise and bipartisanship in the Senate that allowed that kind of soft norm to function. A lot of that was based around the fact that everybody in the Senate at that time was a rich white man. The parties were ideologically mixed up somewhat because of the legacy of the Civil War, but it's a lot easier to have everything work within the gentleman's agreement if everybody at the table is a rich white guy. It's a more complicated thing and you need institutions that actually function when you have a genuinely reflective group of people who are trying to make the laws for your country.
I've gotten a little bit off track, but the point is that people have allowed it for a long time because there's a sense of “we'll be in the minority again one day and we'll wish that we had it then.” What I think they failed to recognize is that the two parties are not actually symmetrical, and Democrats actually want to do good things. We want to use the government in order to make our country more just. Republicans have two goals: they want to cut taxes and confirm judges who can enact the rest of their super unpopular agenda. Republicans do not need the filibuster in order to cut taxes and they have changed the rules such that they don't need it in order to confirm judges either, so right now we have an asymmetrical problem: In order for us to act on gun violence, healthcare, climate change, or pass legislation that protects our democracy, it’s difficult if not impossible without filibuster reform.
It's a very serious concern and something that we talk to folks across the women's rights and reproductive community about quite a bit. I think the hard and terrible answer is that Republicans control the Supreme Court; they have added to the docket cases that will allow them to functionally if not formally gut Roe v Wade. We are already on a pretty dangerous trajectory for choice and if we don't take action that fundamentally and structurally alters our trajectory, then we're not going to be able to change that. So that for us is about expanding the courts. It's also about making these game-changing reforms that protect the fundamentals of our democracy. Fundamentally it's a very, very serious concern. We have to also recognize that we have already lost a really big part of that battle and if we do not make these reforms then we don't know when we'll win again.
What’s standing in the way of reform is everybody's ideas about the filibuster as a Washington tradition but not much else. It actually can be reformed with 50 votes, you just need the democratic caucus to agree on a set of reforms and there are a bunch of different directions you could take. You could go back to a real talking filibuster where in order for a bill to be stalled, someone has to actually be standing on the floor and talking about why they want to stop it. Right now for a lot of complicated and ridiculous reasons, the weight of breaking a filibuster falls entirely on the votes for the bill, so in order to actually get cloture to end a filibuster you need to have all 60 votes that are on the floor. In order to filibuster, you don't actually have to make all 40 people who are trying to stop it be there at the same time, so you could just flip that and say, hey, if you're gonna filibuster, literally everybody who is trying to stop this legislation from moving forward has to be present all the time in order to sustain your filibuster. These are the kinds of rules that would actually make it a lot harder. They make it not a matter of literally calling in and saying hey, I plan to filibuster this, pull it from the floor; they make it take effort.
There are other reforms that we've heard, like in the first hour that you're filibustering, it takes 60 votes to move to debate; and then in the second hour it takes 59, and we're just going to start counting down until we get to 50 votes to move to debate. The fundamental question for us is not what the one perfect reform is. The fundamental question is, does this allow the Senate to do its job and to pass legislation? Some reforms will do that, some reforms won't. Ultimately it just takes getting all 50 Democratic senators on board for one course of action in order to move forward.
If we're not able to reform the filibuster, then we are looking at what we can do through the reconciliation process. The limitation there is that things are ruled in or out of the reconciliation process based upon how germaine they are to the federal budget. I’m oversimplifying a little bit. It is possible to move a number of things via reconciliation; it's not always clear which ones will be ruled in or out and it's not always clear whether Dems would be willing to actually overcome that independent expert if necessary. What I would say is that there are a lot of different possibilities. For instance, we are currently doing all we can to win as much as we can via the reconciliation process. But if we can't get filibuster reform, we want to be moving as ambitious an agenda as possible via reconciliation. We should be all taking our best arguments and figuring out the most creative ways we can...get as big a gain as we can. That said, we need to keep in the front of our minds that this is a completely ridiculous way to run a government - saying literally all legislation can only be passed if it's relevant to the federal budget. That doesn't make any sense.
For Colorado folks on the call, Hickenlooper is an important person to be targeting here. There are a lot of Senators who are not Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema who are still taking an institutionalist posture around this stuff. It's important to drive home to them over and over again that this is a ridiculous way to do business. We should be passing legislation with the majority vote; that is how the vast majority of legislatures around the world work and it is completely reasonable and completely normal to do so.
I would say absolutely yes. First off, I think that it was always clear that it was not going to be a day one thing. You have to build the political will to do a reform like this and the way you do that is by looking at what you are losing; what you're leaving on the table if the filibuster remains. So the movement over the last month around the Equal Pay Act, around the For The People Act, the ongoing challenges around moving the Pro Act...these are all pieces of legislation that depend upon reform in order to pass. It was always going to be necessary for them to come up and not be able to move forward because of the filibuster.
In order to build the political will to ultimately get rid of the filibuster, when you look at the holdouts like Manchin or Sinema, what they're really clear about is they will not be eliminating the filibuster. What they're often a lot more careful about and a little bit fuzzier about is whether there might be some set of reforms that would satisfy them as it relates to the filibuster. So, Senator Manchin has at various points speculated about going back to a talking filibuster, for example. Similarly, Senator Sinema has talked about how it's time to have a conversation about the filibuster and about how we do bipartisanship in the Senate. These are folks who enjoy the limelight; they like to publish a splashy op-ed, they like to be followed around by a bunch of reporters who are constantly asking them questions. They like to be the center of attention. What they don't like is to have a large number of people repeatedly asking them whether they prefer one procedural maneuver over the right to vote. So there are powerful counter pressures that are mobilizing to make sure that they're actually seeing and experiencing the cost of their choices.
Is it a given (that a filibuster reform will happen)? No, absolutely not, but if I could go back in time a couple of years and tell myself that we took the house, we took the Senate, we got Trump out of office, and then we passed this game-changing massive stimulus package that dramatically reduced child poverty and now we've got a couple of holdouts to getting to filibuster reform, I would say that is a very positive trajectory and I think we're most of the way there. It's just those last 10 yards that are always hard. We stay hopeful and keep working on it.
Thank you so much for a very helpful conversation!
-Lisa, Graphic Designer/SoBo Coordinator [bio]