Biden’s Belated Filibuster Decision: The Six-Month Pursuit of Principle Over Politics

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the sudden announcement from President Joe Biden that he does not support the elimination of the filibuster. It only took six months.

Here is the column:

In a town hall event with CNN’s Don Lemon on Wednesday, President Biden delivered a blow to liberals and many in the media who have called for killing the Senate filibuster rule. Biden, for the first time as president, said he does not want to get rid of the filibuster.

That position was less surprising than the timing: This is the six-month mark of Biden’s inauguration, but he just got around to telling his party that he does not support efforts to kill the filibuster. It is a failure of leadership seen on a variety of issues, from Supreme Court packing to corporate censorship.

Biden was pressed by an audience member and then by Lemon on why he has not pushed to kill a rule denounced as a “relic of the Jim Crow period.” Putting aside the factual and historical errors, that claim has become a mantra for the Democratic Party over months of intense fights in Congress. While saying he would prefer to go back to the old rule of requiring members to “hold the floor” during filibusters, Biden suddenly said that killing the rule would “throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done. Nothing at all will get done. There’s a lot at stake. The most important one is the right to vote, that’s the single most important one.” (The concern for getting things done did not extend to tying to up the Senate in floor filibusters for days or weeks — a practice eliminated to allow for other work to be done.)

On CNN, in front an obviously liberal audience, Biden was unwilling to repeat what he previously said as a senator, that the loss of the filibuster would be “disastrous.” Back then, he dramatically proclaimed: “God save us from that fate … [it] would change this fundamental understanding and unbroken practice of what the Senate is all about.” His colleagues, including then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and now-Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), gave equally full-throated endorsements of the rule being denounced today as a thoroughly racist relic.

Even this month, Democrats have heralded the Texas Democratic legislators who fled to Washington to stop any vote on election reforms — a type of flight filibuster. They were even praised by Kamala Harris for their “extraordinary courage and commitment.”

Why would Biden allow this issue to tie up the Senate (and so much media coverage) as he remained silent in the White House? Reporters have pushed for months to get an answer from him.

The answer is that political courage has never been Biden’s strong suit.

Thomas Jefferson once advised his successors that “on matters of style, swim with the current, on matters of principle, stand like a rock.” Biden has rarely found a rock worth standing on. Throughout his career, he has furiously crawled or backstroked from one side of the political pool to the other, depending on the current of public opinion.

When cracking down on crime was popular, Biden outdid his colleagues in rhetoric: “Every time Richard Nixon, when he was running in 1972, would say, ‘Law and order,’ the Democratic match or response was, ‘Law and order with justice’ — whatever that meant. And I would say, ‘Lock the S.O.B.s up.’ ” When busing was unpopular, Biden rushed to oppose it: “My children are going to grow up in a jungle, the jungle being a racial jungle with tensions built so high that it is going to explode at some point.

Biden never claimed to be a man driven by principle. Indeed, it was strangely part of his charm. Many of us still liked him because at least he did not hide his political agenda or insult your intelligence with pretenses of principle; he was proud of being a political operator and treated high principles as bad politics.

Now, however, he is president and expected to be something more than a ward heeler with his own official seal and Marine band. It is a hard transition to make. Donald Trump showed the same difficulty in transitioning from reality-show host and real estate mogul into a president; it was one of the things that lost Trump many votes.

What constitutes a president is more than a pretense of principle or situational ethics. It is often said that “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation.” Biden remains a politician. That was obvious during the 2020 campaign when he was asked for his position on court-packing: When court-packing was unpopular with his party, then-Sen. Biden eagerly denounced it as a “boneheaded” idea. Now, many on the left want to erase the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, so Candidate Biden refused to answer the question. In a breathtaking statement, he said he would not reveal his position on court-packing until after the election, despite the issue being one of the more prominent for voters; a cocoon of supporting media enabled him to shrug off a question of principle as a distraction to politics.

To this day, Biden has refused to state his position. Instead, he has created a lopsided commission to study court-packing and other radical proposals to “reform” the court, including creating a new court to deal solely with constitutional questions. The commission has lined up witnesses like Christopher Kang, co-founder and chief counsel of the pro-court-packing group Demand Justice, which has been criticized for an insulting billboard campaign to pressure Justice Stephen Breyer to retire. Many of the commission’s members and witnesses supported the court when it was adopting their interpretations of the Constitution — but now that a court majority disagrees with them, it must be packed or replaced. Others are challenging the very notion of “judicial review” as inimical to democracy. Nikolas Bowie, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School, labeled judicial review as an “antidemocratic superweapon” that should be curtailed in the name of justice and equity.

Most citizens consider such proposals as absurd. However, the commission is composed of members taken from law faculties that run from the left to the far left, who treat these proposals as perfectly sensible.

Biden knows this is utterly bonkers, but he lacks the political courage to stand up to the far left and say: “Enough! We are not going to pack the court to achieve an immediate liberal majority. We are not going to take an axe to judicial review to make Congress, rather than the courts, the final arbiters on legal questions.”

Unlike his senatorial self, Biden has now adopted the pretense of principle.

During CNN’s town hall, he again repeated his claim that “I’m trying to bring the country together.” But fostering these absurd debates is not bringing the country together; it is fueling divisions.

Presidents cannot always wait for the cover of commissions or the assurance of polls to act. In a country being torn apart by rage, we have a lot of politicians. What we need is a president. As Winston Churchill said, “The nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are keeping their ears to the ground.”

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

29 thoughts on “Biden’s Belated Filibuster Decision: The Six-Month Pursuit of Principle Over Politics”

  1. So tired of Jim Crow this, Jim Crow that. As bad as the boogey man “White Supremist.” Give us all a break.

  2. Seems i had a computer left finger that didn’t work. Again here is Federalist 22 quote Federalist 22. “The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.”

  3. Cato of Rome used long and tedious speeches (filibuster) in the Senate to counter Caesar petition to stand in absentia. It ended negatively for Cato. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 22 wrote of the consequences of the majority-minority conflation or should I say (conflagration). If the current Senate wishes to suspend the rule for filibusters the federal legislative branches will end as a unicameral chamber. ——————————-For further consideration I’ll post a portion of Federalist 22. ————“The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state

  4. Biden fumbled and mumbled at the sycophant event in Ohio a number of times – a real disgrace to the USA presidency. I must wonder: was this scripted for him by his “minders” because they know this isn’t a winning issue for them now? or did he just dig himself into saying it? It’s a good thing that he spends some weekends in the cellar in DE and others, in the new, custom-designed Memory Care Unit of the WhiteHouse.

  5. The Joe Biden plan of action. “I was for it before I was against it and I was against it before I was for it. I was for freedom of speech before I was against it. I was against busing before I was for it. I was against holding my finger to the wind before I was for it”. Just the kind of principles we need from a President of the United States.

  6. “Biden has rarely found a rock worth standing on. Throughout his career, he has furiously crawled or backstroked from one side of the political pool to the other, depending on the current of public opinion.”

    Sounds like most politicians – whatever it takes to get elected or re-elected.

  7. The filibuster came when the government move from Philadelphia to Washington, DC.

    Bust Philly, my name’s Willy.

    Biden is being smart. Get legislation past and keep the elimination of the filibuster on a back burner turned off.

  8. The country is being torn apart by rage, divisiveness and hate–especially hate. I don’t know–is that the new definition of UNITY as Biden sees it?

  9. Biden knows the Repubs have played the Dems around the filibuster. Repubs have managed to isolate the issues they like to support, tax breaks for the upper tax brackets and judicial appointments, from being subject to it while also managing to make more Dem centric issues like voting rights completely subject to it. And if it’s not clear a McConnell led Senate will just wrench further Repub issues (although there doesn’t seem to be many at the moment) from the filibuster in the future that’s just extreme gullibility.

    Basically the future of politics is in freeing up issues from being subject to the filibuster. The future is in offensively being able to blunt the need for it. Dems have to learn from uncle mitchy on this one.

    eb

    1. Can we dispense with this lunatic nonsense.

      The fillibuster has been a tool that has benefited both parties over the past century.
      It has also been a contentious issue that the majority party – whgich ever that was has threatened to eliminate repeatedly throughout my lifetime.

      The current “reconcilliation” process that exempts purely budgetary matters from the filibuster is one example of a successful effort to reign in the filibuster.

      Do you know which party pushed through “reconcilliation” – neither do I.

      The filibuster is not now and never has been a tool of either party. It is not inherently republican. It is not inherently democrat.

      It is a rule that increases the power of the minority party in the senate.

      It is quite honestly “anti-democratic”. It is NOT republican or democrat.

      Claiming otherwise is just plain stupid.

      I personally think that the Filibuster is a godsend. That it should be strengthened rather than weakened. That it should apply to judicial nominees and budgets – though I would not apply it to executive appointments. An administration is within some narrow limits entitled to political appointments that share its ideology and agenda. It is NOT entitled to permanently change the courts without supermajority support. It is NOT entitled to expand the law without supermajority support.

      But you are free to disagree – and we can have a real debate on the filibuster – NOT your nonsensical presumption that everything is partisan based on the chimeral political calculus of the moment.

      At the same time – I do NOT think that the filibuster is a consequential issue. I do not care if Biden or Democrats “win” it at this moment. With near certainty if democrats end the filibuster – it will end forever.

      That will pose TWO large problems for democrats.

      First as we have already seen Democrats changing the rules of congress has ultimately backfired and favored republicans.

      Trump was able to substantially alter the makeup of the courts and the supreme court – because DEMOCRATS eliminated the filibuster from those appointments.

      If you honestly beleive that democrats will remain in power permanently – then go for it. End the Filibuster.

      But if you expect that the current democratic majorities are on a razor’s edge – it would be wise to refrain from eliminating the filibuster because you may need it soon enough.

      Republicans would have significantly transformed government during Trump’s term far more than they did but for the filibuster.

      The 2ND reason for keeping the filibuster is that it provides a convenient excuse for democrats to FAIL to impliment changes that powerful left constituencies demand, but that are themselves unpopular.

      There is an entire raft of idiotic but popular on the left legislation that has not passed purportedly because of the filibuster.

      It is easy for democratic (or republicans) senators to vote for laws that would prove disasterous in practice – so long as there is no chance of their actually becoming the law of the land.

      As a Simple example – There would purportedly be no impediment to Biden’s massive infrastructure spending.

      And maybe it actually would pass without the filibuster – though that remains to be seen.

      Regardless, without the filibuster those voting FOR this massive spending – as well as other measures that APPEAR to be thwarted by the filibuster, would have to confront the fact that if these things actually PASS, they would be accountable for them.

      There are only a few things on the democratic agenda that I am actually afraid of – the most consequential being the lefts vigorous efforts to suppress speech they do not like.

      Much of the rest of what democrats seek is self punishing actions.

      We did not unfortunately learn enough from the Obama administration the disasterous impact of overbearing government.
      Or more accurately we learned and then forgot.

      Trump did NOT preside over an incredibly economy. He presided over a MEDIOCRE one – it just looked great because it was preceded by 20 years of POOR economy.

      If you wish to repeat that – or if you are deluded enough to beleive “this time is different” – this time massive govenrment spending will actually work, or this time socialism or communism will actually work.

      Go for it.

      Frankly the sooner the better.

      It would be far better for the country to give those of you on the left the opportunity to succeed or fail – so long as you do not receive the power to supress the voices shouting “I told you so” when as is near certain you FAIL.

      1. “But you are free to disagree – and we can have a real debate on the filibuster – NOT your nonsensical presumption that everything is partisan based on the chimeral political calculus of the moment.”

        Your reading of what I said. Not actually what I said. And you *never* debate actual points without bringing in tons of abstraction.

        eb

      2. “But if you expect that the current democratic majorities are on a razor’s edge – it would be wise to refrain from eliminating the filibuster because you may need it soon enough.”

        John, these are brilliant points (especially how politicians use the filibuster to disguise their intentions), but on this particular point above, I would say the Democrats want to kill the filibuster precisely so they can rig elections by outlawing chain-of-custody balloting nationwide and gutting the Electoral College. Blue states can then cheat and control the whole country by cheating. With that, the Democrats can achieve the one-party state they always craved.

        And let’s face it, folks, the Squad doesn’t want justice or equity. They want a one-party state ruled by them. Scratch any social-justice gangster and you can smell the tyrant.

        And BTW, Joe Biden, while I’m mildly grateful to you for your tepid endorsement of the filibuster, the Democrats don’t need to kill the filibuster to achieve their one-party dictatorship–just keep flooding the country with people who are radicalizing the country (real Cuban refugees need not apply). YOU KNOW THAT AND YOU’RE DOING IT, TOO. For that, I am extremely ungrateful.

      1. Bug,

        I have no fear at being judged for what I say, or for the consequences of my actions or following my advice.

        I am fully prepared to take the credit and the blame for what I do, what I say, and for the consequences of my advice being followed.

        Further, I have been fully consistent on most of my positions, arguments, and actions over time.

        Whether the issue is the filibuster or elections, or censorship or the scope of government or endless wars, my positions are the same regardless of which party is in power.

        On those rare occasions I have shifted my views – I have done so openly and explained my change.

        You can not honestly say any of the same yourself.

        You have no moral foundations. You not merely do not share my moral foundations – you have none of your own.

        You argue right and wrong based on your personal perception of who will benefit at this moment.

        What is right now, will be wrong as soon as the tides shift.

        Evil republicans seek to protect the anti-democratic Filibuster today. Tomorow you will be arguing that it is nazi republicans seeking to end the filibuster.

        Biden’s hypocracy is forgiveable – he is incompetent.

        Presumably you are not non compos mentis
        Therefore you are responsible for the self contradications in your own arguments.

        Calling your arguments idiotic is the LEAST offensive description of them.

        If they are not idiotic – they are immoral.

    2. Biden knows the Repubs have played the Dems around the filibuster.

      What a lie.
      Budget bills come through on Reconciliation.
      Judges come through because of Democrat Harry Reid.

  10. Is Biden unwilling to eliminate the filibuster because of personal belief or politics meaning he doesn’t have the votes? History tells us the latter.

    1. First – there is no Biden. Biden does not run the country.

      Next, my guess is that this is actually wise political calculus by prominent democrats.

      It is very easy to vote for the far lefts christmas list – so long as you KNOW that the filibuster will preclude it every becoming law, and ever having to be accountable for voting for things that are popular with extremists, but will not work.

      Eliminate the filibuster and each vote has a REAL cost. Actual responsibility for the consequences of your policies.

      I do not think most democrats in power are stupid. I strongly suspect that the majority of legislation that is thwarted by the filibuster was not written with the intention of it passing.

      People – including powerful politicians are willing to SAY very stupid things, to VOTE for very stupid things – so long as they never have to bear the responsibility for those stupid things actually becoming law.

      The filibuster is a powerful tool for the majority – regardless of party – to appease the extremists without actually giving them what they want and having to take responsibility for it.

      1. “First – there is no Biden. Biden does not run the country.”

        John, Of course, there is a Biden, and you shouldn’t pretend there isn’t. The President has control over the veto and a lot of other stuff. This doesn’t mean others aren’t pulling the strings. It only means that what Biden does as President is what counts.

        Don’t diminish the idea of “Biden” for the damage his administration does cannot be adequately corrected in the future. The American dream is an aberrancy. Normality means far fewer freedoms. Once removed, individual liberties are seldom returned in the same more favorable state as when taken away. The trend is in the opposite direction of the American dream.

        1. Fellas, I have theory. The rumor swirling around the media is that Joe is trying to sabotage Kamala to keep her from reading him the 25th. Well, that’s exactly what’s happening, but the real battle isn’t between these two bantamweight idiots. The real subtext is that this is a feud between the East Coast snobs in the D.C. establishment and the West Coast narcissists who think it’s their turn to run (ruin?) the country.

          Joe got into serious trouble last summer when he squandered his campaign money–not to mention a laptop here and there. He had to go hat-in-hand to the West Coast and they agreed to bail him out (and censor anybody who challenged him), but he had to take Kamala as his running mate. As soon as he agreed, Joe was magically awash in mountains of cash and Kamala magically passed everybody to the top of the ticket. Imagine that!!

          Why on Earth Kamala? She’s just a know-nothing sock puppet who “primaried” herself. That’s exactly why they insisted on her. She’s THEIR know-nothing sock puppet who couldn’t exist without them. Joe Demento is past his expiration date, so it’s just a matter of time before they’re controlling the show through her.

          Of course, the real white privilege in this country–rich Democrats around D.C. and Manhattan–are worried their privilege might take a hit as the silicon Maoists takeover.

          This is really about whose privilege gets gored.

          1. President Biden has made his position loud and clear regarding court packing and the filibuster all along – at least to me. He’s not for court packing any more than he’s for kicking the fllibuster to the curb. He can count and the knows Speaker Pelosi will be minority leader after 2022. So, respectfully, give the guy credit for being good at his job.

            I’m a Republican leaning centrist, the President leans slight left – but – is also a centrist. I can live with him.

            1. Seriously, John, are you ok with Biden’s handling of immigration? If so, why aren’t you greatly concerned about it?

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