Perhaps it would be wise to sabotage the filibuster in 2021 and push marijuana reform at full throttle.
Senate Democrats are hoping to push a “comprehensive” cannabis reform bill in the coming months. However, talks about eliminating the filibuster, an old-time rule that requires a 60 vote supermajority, has Republican leaders hissing and spitting.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky threatened a “completely scorched earth Senate” earlier this week if Democrats so much as change the rules. If that happens, any hope of marijuana legalization could be doomed. Democrats need Republican support for cannabis reform to stand a fighting chance.
Several reports indicate that Senate Democrats have been discussing privately making changes to the filibuster. They are trying to figure out a way to get rid of this old rule, which allows a single senator to object and jam up a bill’s progress. It’s a stall tactic created way back in the day, whereby senators could spend hours jabbering against legislation to prevent it from passing. McConnell wants this rule to remain in play. It’s the only thing that still gives him any power. Yet Democrats understand that it could prevent them from making more progress this session.
It’s for this reason that President Biden wants the filibuster changed. Rather than what it has become, he recently told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that he’d like to see it revert back to “what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days.” Biden said, “you had to stand up and command the floor. You had to keep talking. You’ve got to work for the filibuster,” he continued. “It’s getting to the point where, you know, democracy is having a hard time functioning.”
But a dysfunctional Senate is something that McConnell strives to keep. On Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican straight-up admitted that nothing concrete would get done in the Senate if Democrats altered the filibuster. “So let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues. Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like,” McConnell barked. “None of us have served one minute in a Senate that was completely drained of comity and consent. This is an institution that requires unanimous consent to turn the lights on before noon, to proceed with a garden-variety floor speech.”
“I want our colleagues to imagine a world where every single task, every one of them, requires a physical quorum,” McConnell continued. “Which, by the way, the vice president does not count in determining a quorum. This chaos would not open up an express lane for liberal change … The Senate would be more like a 100-car pileup, nothing moving.”
This fight over the filibuster is nothing new. It’s part of the reason that it took so long to negotiate a power-sharing agreement between McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. McConnell didn’t want to sign-off on anything until Schumer swore in writing not to touch the filibuster. He later backed off that demand after learning that the Democrats didn’t have the votes to make it happen. But now, the pressure is on to make the change.
Pointing out how the filibuster was used to stall the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Senator Rick Durbin of Illinois recently said, “the filibuster is still making a mockery of American democracy.” Still, it remains uncertain whether liberal Democrats have persuaded conservatives to go their way. Many are not in favor, and the party needs every Democratic member to sign on in order to disrupt the filibuster.
So far, Democrats look like they are kicking crack and taking names on the Hill this session. The recently approved $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill was a big win. But the bill was pushed through without Republican support through budget reconciliation. It’s a situation where a simple majority vote is needed to pass. Democrats have the majority in both chambers, but it is by such a thin margin that it’s almost treacherous. To that end, Democrats cannot rely on the budget reconciliation tactic to pass everything on their agenda, including marijuana reform. Any cannabis-related measure picked up by the Senate in the coming weeks could be filibustered to death.
Unfortunately, to pass a comprehensive marijuana bill this year, Senate Democrats need to amend, if not kill, the filibuster. It has been done before, so it’s not out of the scope of imagination.
Yet, if what McConnell says is true, pushing more of President Biden’s agenda could prove challenging if they go that route. McConnell wants Democrats to know that any mission they accomplish by changing the filibuster would be repealed once Republicans win back the majority. Once again, this could include marijuana legalization. “As soon as Republicans wound up back in the saddle, we wouldn’t just erase every liberal change that hurt the country—we’d strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero input from the other side,” McConnell asserted.
Some argue that getting rid of the filibuster is the only way Democracy can survive, that it’s only through an abuse of the rule that it’s even on the chopping block to begin with. It could be argued that Democrats should strike while the iron is hot and force McConnell and crew to contend with the aftermath however they see fit. Sure, Republicans could go medieval the next time they have control — it could be following the midterms — but Democrats should at least try to level the playing field and put democracy back to work in Congress. Eventually, Republican strong arm tactics will no longer bode well for them in the election process; ultra-conservative ideas and a blatant disregard for most of the population will catch up with the party and force a pivot.
Therefore, perhaps it would be wise to sabotage the filibuster in 2021 and push marijuana reform at full throttle. Let the Republicans contend with the backlash that would surely arise from trying to resurrect prohibition.