The Filibuster Might be an Obscure Tool of Washington Policymakers, But Its Demise Would be Felt by Farmers, Rural America

By Brooke S. Appleton

When people ask what worries me most about the political divisions in Congress, I tell them that one of my biggest concerns is the Senate eliminating the filibuster.

That’s not only because it would do away with an important tool that encourages bipartisanship, but also because the demise of this practice, which allows for extended debate that prevents legislation from advancing without a 60-vote threshold, could have serious ramifications for farm policy.

While the filibuster’s downfall is not as imminent as some would like, thanks to Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), it is perhaps closer to being eliminated than at any other time in American history.

And while many see eliminating the Senate filibuster as the means to an important end, including passing voting rights legislation, climate policy and circumventing stagnation from a hyper-partisan political climate, I would caution these advocates to consider all that would be lost if the filibuster were no longer part of the Senate rules. I would also remind them that the filibuster has been used for over two centuries precisely because it serves the important purpose of making the Senate more deliberative.

Though the filibuster is not mentioned specifically in the constitution, long debate aimed at shaping or derailing legislation goes back to the earliest days of the Senate. As the practice became more common toward the mid-19thCentury, when the process acquired the name filibuster, many began calling for a rule that would allow the Senate to formally end debate and move legislation to a vote. In 1917, the Senate added a rule that called for a two-thirds vote of the Senate to end debate, often referred to as cloture. In the 1970s, the Senate lowered the number of votes needed to end debate to three-fifths (60 votes) of the Senate.

The filibuster faced one of its biggest existential crises in 2013, when Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), then the Senate Majority Leader, ended the use of the filibuster on presidential appointments. In 2017, when Republicans re-gained control of the Senate, then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and fellow Republicans followed Reid’s lead by ending the filibuster for judicial appointments, allowing Pres. Trump to seat conservative-backed judges with only 50 votes.

These recent examples demonstrate the ephemeral nature of weakening the filibuster to advance political goals of the party in power. The temporary gratification of eliminating the filibuster for the majority party is soon surpassed by the pain that is inflicted when that party becomes the minority and watches its gains slip away with a simple majority vote.

My job is to look at these developments from a 30,000-foot level and objectively determine their impact on corn growers. And it’s from this vantage point that I become most concerned. I worry that ending the filibuster will hurt our ability to gain much-needed consensus on pro-agriculture legislation, particularly reauthorization of the farm bill.

The fact that farm bills must clear a 60-vote threshold for Senate passage has ensured that Democrats and Republicans develop bills that address the many, and at times disparate, issues that are important to the diverse needs of American farmers and families.

Without the filibuster, the emphasis of the farm bill would be less focused on building diverse coalitions and legislation that meets a broad set of needs and more about suiting the political whims of whichever party controls the Senate.

Yet, reauthorization of the farm bill is one time that we must ensure that all American farmers – from lettuce growers in California to milk producers in the northeast and corn growers across the country – have the federal programs and policies they need to feed and fuel America.

Farm bills are held up as an example of where bipartisan policymaking still works. To clear a 60-vote threshold and a formal conference committee, it takes input from members of both parties who represent these interests, and who can share their thoughts and concerns with their colleagues, even those with whom they disagree. This helps policymakers develop and pass laws that are effective for the needs of our diverse farming community.

We know from recent experience that bipartisan work can yield huge wins for Americans. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed in 2021 with bipartisan support, is an example of how Democrats and Republicans can still deliver big results by working together.

Our leaders should put big ideas on the table when it comes to addressing great partisan divides. But ending the filibuster should not be one of them.

Long live the filibuster!

Appleton is vice president of public policy at the National Corn Growers Association.