Proponents of common ground — like ourselves — received some welcome news earlier this month with the Senate’s passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. It’s the largest investment in infrastructure since the 1950s, and it passed with 19 Republican votes. It’s a rare sight to see major legislation pass on a bipartisan basis, but, unfortunately, it does not necessarily signal a change in Washington.
Democrats seem intent on going it alone, using the budget reconciliation process to push a separate multitrillion spending package, partially due to the threat of the filibuster. For such a hotly debated rule, it’s notable that the filibuster was essentially created by accident. As vice president, Aaron Burr argued in 1805 that a Senate procedure allowing a simple majority of legislators to end debate and move to a vote was redundant and should be removed. He got his wish when he left office, and the filibuster was born.
Whether or not a political party is in favor of the filibuster seems to hinge on its position of power in the Senate. Before he called it a “relic of Jim Crow”— and it must be acknowledged that the modern filibuster was a favored tool of opponents of civil rights legislation — a young Sen. Barack Obama argued passionately in favor of the procedural maneuver when his party was in the minority. President Donald Trump wanted Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to eliminate the rule in 2018 to easily pass his agenda — much in the same way Democrats are now pressing President Joe Biden. Opponents of the filibuster say it’s an affront to how the Founders intended government to work and silences the will of the people. Proponents say it’s the one tool legislators have left to force bipartisan solutions and that its elimination would give the majority complete control to force through its agenda.
As heads of Common Ground Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing political polarization, we welcome any tool that would encourage Democrats and Republicans to come together and find solutions. But the filibuster is neither the solution nor the problem. What needs to be changed is the mindset of our leaders. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House wouldn’t vote on the infrastructure bill until the Senate passed the reconciliation measure. (In an agreement reached with Democratic moderates, both bills are now expected to receive votes in the House by the end of September.) In the Senate, McConnell has threatened “zero input” from Republicans if the filibuster is eliminated. We cannot afford this prioritization of conflict over solutions any longer.
We’re at a critical juncture as a nation. If the filibuster is indeed removed or reformed, there will be little incentive for Democrats and Republicans to work together. If it remains, it will continue to be used as a tool to block legislation and stifle debate. Reforms such as a proposed plan to exempt voting rights laws from the filibuster would only slap a Band-Aid on the problem. The only path forward is to change the culture in Washington.
While there is evidence Americans want to see their leaders compromise, that sentiment isn’t reflected in who we elect to office. Prior to the 2020 elections, our organization released the Common Ground Scorecard, a tool to help Americans see how likely members of Congress and candidates were to find common ground. The average score for members of Congress and governors was only 25 out of a possible 110. There are exceptions, such as members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, but when the vast majority of our government leaders are incentivized to pursue partisan agendas, it’s clear we as citizens have not done enough to encourage them to work together. Our votes give us the power to make them listen.
It’s time to end this back-and-forth on the filibuster and put governing back in the hands of the legislative branch. Rather than pressure our elected leaders on a Senate mechanism, we should focus our energies on backing candidates committed to bipartisan solutions — members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, for example. Tools like the Common Ground Scorecard and the Bipartisan Index from the Lugar Center can help voters identify those candidates.
The best policies are those that include the input of multiple points of view, that won’t be reversed when there is a change in power, and that are representative of the majority of Americans. That requires bipartisan work and support. Until elected officials feel political pressure to work together, we will fail to make that kind of badly needed progress on the most pressing issues facing our nation, regardless of whether or not the filibuster exists.
The filibuster may have been created by accident, but it’s now become a favored tool of whichever party is in the minority. Its elimination will not end the dysfunction in Washington. That will only happen when we as citizens decide we’ve had enough of fighting and gridlock, and support politicians who put country over party.
Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen are the co-founders of Common Ground Committee, a citizen-led nonpartisan group dedicated to reducing polarization in politics.