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How Bernie Sanders’ Position On Filibuster Is Needlessly Complicated

Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) responded to blowback following his defense of the filibuster. He called for the return of the “talking filibuster” and suggested his administration would rely on the vice president to ensure his agenda passed under budget reconciliation.

But a “talking filibuster” would not end obstructions and allow more policymaking. Effectively, it would allow more senators to hold the floor for hours, possibly even while they piss themselves or come close to their legs collapsing, as they perform on C-SPAN for their constituents.

This is his confusing position:

Once we have, and I believe it will be sooner than later, a Democratic majority who are prepared to vote for Medicare for All in the House and Senate, we will pass it. In the Senate we must enact real filibuster reform, including the return to requiring a talking filibuster. It is not right that one Senator can grind the entire process to a halt. (emphasis added)

Sanders’ first point about a “talking filibuster” is completely contradicted by the very next line. Letting one senator hold the floor for days by talking is the very definition of one Senator grinding the process to a halt.

More importantly, as a matter of policy, a “talking filibuster” (as opposed to the current strategy, where senators can stop progress with endless quorum calls and other points of order) changes nothing.

The reason bills do not pass the Senate is because they cannot get 60 votes to end debate. While a talking filibuster would be moderately more inconvenient for the minority party, it would still be easy for 40 senators to hold the floor indefinitely.

Sanders then goes on to say he will not actually let this reformed “talking filibuster” stop him from passing any bills he really wants with a simple majority anyway:

Further, I would remind everyone that the budget reconciliation process, with 51 votes, has been used time and time again to pass major pieces of legislation and that under our Constitution and the rules of the Senate, it is the vice president who determines what is and is not permissible under budget reconciliation. I can tell you that a vice president in a Bernie Sanders administration will determine that Medicare for All can pass through the Senate under reconciliation and is not a violation of the rules. (emphasis added)

This is highly technical, but Sanders is effectively calling for eliminating the filibuster in the most needlessly complex way possible.

Under budget reconciliation, every provision in a bill must meet what is known as the Byrd Rule. Traditionally the Senate has let the Senate parliamentarian determine which provisions do or do not meet the Byrd Rule requirements, but technically the final decision rests with the head of the Senate, which is the vice president.

Sanders is saying his vice president would completely ignore what the rules actually say so a simple majority could pass whatever he wanted.

This strategy would legally work, but there is no reason to do it this way. It is naive to think that if Democrats completely ignore the Byrd Rule for their major legislation, Republicans would not do the same when controlling Congress. Nor does it seem like this weird plan is likely to win over any voters.

Furthermore, why even bother to reform the rules to require a “talking filibuster” if you are also willing to completely ignore other rules to pass any bill with a simple majority?

So much of what he said is baffling. A talking filibuster will not aid the “political revolution,” as he refers to the movement that supports him. It will only increase the chances that a senator wears a diaper on to the floor and is out there so long that they piss themselves while giving a speech. Or it may lead to an endless spectacle of senators sweating profusely, their knees buckling underneath them after many hours.

The good news is Sanders does not plan to let Senate rules stop Democrats from passing laws that could help millions. But the key point is it would be much simpler to take the position that bills should pass with a simple majority, which is what the founders of the United States intended.

Credit: Erica Caines / Liberation Through Reading
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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at http://pendinghorizon.com