The Democratic primaries have already given Americans plenty of big promises, with candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren hoping to pass bills for programs such as Medicare For All and affordable housing. But as John Oliver pointed out on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, no matter who ends up in the Oval Office, they’ll face a major setback to their proposed big ideas: Senate filibusters.
Oliver explained that, despite our popular portrayal of the filibuster as an act of endurance on the Senate floor – think Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – it merely means a prolonged debate that obstructs a bill from gaining 60 votes, the required number for a bill to pass in the Senate. While it’s untrue that the Senate always required a 60-vote majority, rather than a simple majority, for a bill to pass, the 18th century idea of the Senate being a “cooling saucer” for the House’s “hot coffee” is a popular argument for the filibuster’s existence.
But filibusters don’t encourage the Senate to be a “bastion of debate,” Oliver argues. For one thing, the mythological “golden age” of the Senate being a “haven of gentlemanly debate” never really existed (a senator was almost beaten to death with a metal-topped cane on the Senate floor in the 1800s). And the supposed power that filibusters give to “minorities” in the Senate usually manifests in political minorities restricting the power of racial minorities, as Southern senators did during the Civil Rights era.
Most crucially, says Oliver, the filibusters do not encourage bipartisanship, as they were initially designed to do. Rather, they prevent key bills with bipartisan support, like gun control bills and the public option on Obamacare, from passing the Senate. And while there’s certainly a risk in getting rid of the 60-vote majority for Democrats – a similar rollback allowed Brett Kavanaugh to voted onto the Supreme Court – it may allow the Senate to actually get things done.