Gail Collins: The Senate’s F-bomb

It is time for the Senate’s filibuster rule to go up in smoke.

(Senate Television via AP) In this image from video, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks before the Senate voted to award the Congressional Gold Medal to U.S. Capitol Police offer Eugene Goodman for his actions during the Jan. 6 riot, as the Senate took a break from the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

Wow, stuff is ... happening.

Joe Biden’s big virus relief plan is about to become law. And the Senate has confirmed Merrick Garland as attorney general.

“The president and his team must be thrilled that Senate Republicans are proving to be more fair and more principled on personnel matters than the Democratic minority’s behavior just four years ago,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just before the Garland vote.

We will stop here for one second to recall that Garland would probably be on the Supreme Court now if McConnell had not refused to bring his nomination up for a vote when he was Senate majority leader. Along with blocking Barack Obama from filling 105 other judicial vacancies.

But hey, who’s bitter?

Not Biden, who’s ready to move on to the rest of his agenda: immigration, climate change, education, infrastructure ...

Think about it, people. Spring is just around the corner. Soon you’ll be vaccinated, going out for dinner or the theater, or having a drink with friends. You can talk about the issues of the day, down to highway construction policy. Or the Biden German shepherds. When you want to keep things moving, just try bringing up pets, even the biters.

Or you can worry about filibusters. The only thing standing between Biden and real White House happiness is Republicans’ ability to demand 60 votes for passage of important legislation in a body that has 50 Democrats.

The coronavirus bill made it through because of something called budget reconciliation. We will say only that it just requires a majority, it doesn’t work for most bills and it’s not necessary for you to think about it any more right now. Really, contemplating filibusters is enough.

When it comes to something like the rules of the Senate, filibustering is a superstar. In our mind’s eye, we have a vision of an exhausting marathon in which a brave senator has the gumption to stand up and keep orating until his or her colleagues see the point.

That was a version that worked better in movies than in real life. In the hands of Southern racists, filibusters were a prime tool to stop change. And even now in the Senate, they’re mainly a threat to legislation aimed at helping minorities or the poor.

Alexander Hamilton certainly wasn’t a fan. He wrote that the point of demanding a supermajority to pass a bill is to “destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junto to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”

When all else fails, it always helps to quote Alexander Hamilton. And if you’re trying to imagine a corrupt junto, picture McConnell hanging out with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, with Lindsey Graham for a mascot.

We also tend to think of a filibusterer as somebody who has a way with words. But in the real world, oration is to filibuster as essay writing is to texting. Imagine somebody who waits to be recognized, says “pretend I’m talking,” and closes down the process for everybody else.

“It’s way too easy,” says Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who’s been a long-running opponent of the filibuster as it stands today. His solution, which makes perfect sense, is that anybody who wants to stall the Senate by staging a filibuster should actually have to keep talking.

Maybe they could also require everybody to listen to the debate. That’d certainly be the end of the game.

The bottom line on the filibuster is that it’s really, really hard to get anything ambitious through the U.S. Senate. There are exceptions — like nominations. And, as we just saw, some money bills. And, the Republicans insist, tax cuts. But once we get past celebrating Biden’s big coronavirus victory, all those proposals on immigration, voting rights, the environment and protecting union organizers are going to run into a Republican demand that the 50 Democrats produce a 60-vote majority or throw in the towel.

It’s getting so irritating that even Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has expressed openness to reform. However, he’s not willing to get rid of this stupid practice entirely. (“Never! Jesus Christ. What don’t you understand about never?”) Lately even Manchin seems to occasionally be getting tired of his being a swing vote on the entire Senate agenda.

Brian Fallon of Demand Justice, an advocacy group supporting judicial reform, is a longtime Senate-watcher who thinks it’s just a matter of time before the filibuster gets reined in.

The Democrats have been waiting a long while to get through an agenda more exciting than not-going-bankrupt. One after another, Fallon predicted, legislation like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will make it through the House and then turn the Senate into a kind of “Kabuki theater,” where, thanks to the filibuster, “they bring up one bill after another and have them fail.”

Finally, Democrats will be so exhausted they’ll demand some action. “If they can summon their nerve to do it before August recess. ...” he mused hopefully.

It does look as if we’ll have to wait at least until summer. Think of it as the season when the filibuster goes up in smoke.

Gail Collins | The New York Times (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.