How Bernie Sanders’ defense of the filibuster undermines his core agenda

Sanders offers a perplexing defense of a legislative mechanism that could undermine his entire presidential agenda

By Cody Fenwick

Published April 8, 2019 6:56PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders (AP/Dennis Van Tine)
Bernie Sanders (AP/Dennis Van Tine)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) bills himself as a revolutionary candidate for president, but in a new interview with HuffPost, he offered a perplexing defense of a legislative mechanism that could likely undermine his entire presidential agenda if he were to enter the White House in 2021.

Discussing the Senate filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes to pass most bills, he voiced a guarded opposition to the growing push from Democrats to end it.

“Donald Trump supports the ending of the filibuster,” he noted, correctly. “So you should be a little bit nervous if Donald Trump supports it.”

He added: “The problem, though, that I believe, is whether you’re in the majority or the minority, I think you have to protect minority rights. I don’t think you can just simply shove everything through. There’s an argument for that, by the way, but that’s not where I am right now. ”

Though the argument about protecting “minority rights” is a commonly given in defense of the filibuster, it is entirely erroneous. The filibuster doesn’t protect minority rights, it simply makes legislation harder to pass. It does give more power to the minority in the Senate, but this “minority” itself may stand in the way of the protections we commonly think of when discussing minority rights. The filibuster means that progressive legislation that would actually protect minority rights of vulnerable groups — such as a law that would prevent employment discrimination against LGBTQ people — is more difficult to pass because it faces such a high vote threshold.

The Vermont senator additionally claimed that even without getting rid of the filibuster, “every piece of legislation that I am fighting for can be passed with good legislative processes, including budget reconciliation.”

While budget reconciliation allows a bare majority in the Senate to pass a bill into law once a year, there are rules about what this legislation can do that limit its scope. Budget reconciliation would likely be an important tool for whomever the next Democratic president happens to be, but it could not accommodate the bold progressive agenda that Sanders has proposed.

This agenda includes the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, student debt relief, rebuilding infrastructure, going after Wall Street, and reinvigorating unions. Sanders might be able to make progress on some of these goals with the filibuster in place, but any achievements would certainly fall well short of his vision.

Even without the filibuster, it will be a heavy lift to get even 51 Democrats on board with many of these ideas, assuming they can win a majority in the Senate. Allowing Republicans to then block any legislation would make most or all of these ideas dead on arrival. Not only is the GOP ideologically opposed to these efforts, but it would be loath to give a President Sanders any legislative victories.

Sanders’ opposition to ending the filibuster is a bad sign even if he doesn’t become the 2020 Democratic nominee or president. Assuming he’s still in office the next time a Democrat is in the White House, he, as a senator, would be a key vote for ending the filibuster. If even he, with a bold and aggressive platform, is reticent to get on board with this idea, it will undoubtedly be much harder to get more moderate senators to go along.

HuffPost does note that in 2013, Sanders has been open to reforms that would greatly weaken the filibuster, such as requiring anyone filibustering legislation to continue speaking on the Senate floor for as long as they want to block the legislation. It’s unclear if Sanders is still behind this kind of move. But his contention that his agenda has any chance of becoming reality within the current rules is clearly misguided.

Cody Fenwick

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