John Locher / AP
Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Editor’s note: Following a longstanding tradition, Brian Greenspun turned over his Where I Stand column to others in August. Today, we continue to present columns submitted by those guests. In presenting this year’s series of columns from community leaders, we feel it is important that our readers, trying to emerge from the ravages of the pandemic, hear from some of the people who can help guide us to better tomorrows. Today’s guest is Harry Reid, former Senate majority leader and retired senator from Nevada.
This past week the Supreme Court failed to block a Texas bill that not only bans abortions after six weeks, but also offers cash prizes to individuals who find and turn in anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion procedure. It essentially turns people into bounty hunters against their neighbors. The law is not only restrictive but it is overly cruel and punitive.
Many Nevadans I talk to are understandably confused about why our majority isn’t governing to protect women’s rights, or why Roe v. Wade isn’t the law of the land already. And they want to know why we have not passed a whole host of other laws that would further Democratic priorities — the same priorities that won Democrats unified control of the federal government less than a year ago.
The answer is frustratingly simple: With the filibuster in place, having a majority in the Senate does not translate into the ability to pass legislation.
An arcane Senate rule, the filibuster imposes a 60-vote threshold on the majority of legislation, and it allows just one senator of the minority party to effectively block any and all progress by simply sending an email indicating their opposition to a bill.
Our framers envisioned the Senate as a deliberative body where the issues of the day could receive thoughtful consideration, and where a simple majority was needed to conduct most business. What we have today is a gridlocked body where there’s more obstruction than debate.
In the framers’ eyes, debate was to be encouraged in the Senate, but at the end of the day, bills would pass or fail on a simple majority vote. This is how the Senate operated for much of its history. It was mostly pro-slavery segregationists who abused the debate rules in the 19th century to thwart civil rights measures. The filibuster rule as we know it today was introduced in 1917 as a means of cutting off extended and tedious debate. What seemed like an effort to get the Senate working at the time actually became a tool that empowered an entrenched minority of senators to block anti-lynching, voting rights and other civil rights measures throughout the Jim Crow era. The heirs to their despicable legacy are the Republicans in today’s Senate who view any efforts to expand or protect civil rights with disdain.
Just as he did in the Obama years, when I served as majority leader, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has exploited and weaponized the filibuster, turning it into a tool to stifle President Joe Biden’s legislative priorities — a platform that won him the White House by more than seven million votes. The filibuster has become an anti-democratic weapon wielded by the minority to silence the will of the people.
Today, the Senate is no longer a deliberative body, but rather a legislative graveyard where the minority rules and bills that we as a country desperately need go to die.
And the filibuster’s existence in the Senate is not only hurting women in Texas and women in the states bound to follow Texas’ lead — it’s also hurting Nevadans every day, on a whole host of issues.
In 2019, I wrote that “the list of issues stalled by the Senate filibuster is enormous — and still growing.” Unfortunately, this warning proved to be prescient. All through 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a flurry of legislation that would concretely improve the lives of Nevadans.
This includes the PRO Act, the most pro-worker, pro-union legislation in generations, which will strengthen and cement our state’s already-storied legacy of labor power. It also includes the Equality Act, which would protect the fundamental rights of our LGBTQ friends and family; and the For The People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would standardize voting laws across the country and ensure every American has the right to vote with measures such as automatic voter registration, expanded early and mail-in voting, and protection against suppressive purges or barriers.
Unfortunately, all of these pieces of legislation, in addition to any meaningful action addressing the existential threats our state is facing from climate change, the scourge of gun violence, or any reform of our broken immigration system, are currently blocked thanks to the filibuster.
In 2013, while serving as majority leader of the Senate, I made the decision to support a change to the Senate’s rules to get rid of the filibuster on most presidential nominations. The decision was not easy but I made it because Senate Republicans’ brazen, unchecked obstruction left me no other choice. Prior to President Barack Obama’s inauguration, only 68 presidential nominees were stymied by a filibuster. But in President Obama’s first four years, McConnell’s Republican minority filibustered 79 of the nominees the president sent to the Senate. It was unprecedented and it called for action that I’m proud I and the majority of my colleagues at the time took.
We face that same choice today. Just as he did in President Obama’s first term with nominations, Mitch McConnell and his fellow far-right Republicans are again making clear that they will stop at nothing to steamroll Democratic priorities — even when it means grinding the Senate’s proceedings to a halt.
The sanctity of the Senate is not the filibuster. The sanctity of the Senate — in government as a whole — is the power it holds to better the lives of and protect the rights of the American people. We need to get the Senate working again.
It’s time Senate Democrats act with the urgency that this moment demands and abolish the filibuster once and for all.