Barack Obama delivered a forceful criticism of the way the Senate conducts business on Thursday, calling the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” and telling the chamber to get rid of the 60-vote requirement needed to pass major legislation.
The former president made his appeal for Democrats in Congress to do everything in their power to protect voting rights during the funeral for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, arguing drastic action was needed to properly complete Lewis’ life’s work.
“You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law he was willing to die for,” Obama said while delivering a eulogy for the Georgia congressman, who died last week at age 80 and was famously beaten by state troopers during a march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. “Naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is a fine tribute, but John wouldn’t want us to stop there, just getting back to where we already were.”
“If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” he added.
Obama’s speech could be a watershed moment in Democratic politics. He is by far the highest-ranking member of the party to openly embrace the filibuster’s elimination, and his move prompted Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the grandfather of the modern progressive movement, to adopt the same stance. If Democrats win the White House and the Senate and maintain control of the House in November, which polls show is a strong possibility, removing the filibuster would dramatically expand the potential for major new legislation.
The former president’s comments will likely encourage Democrats who are pushing the party to go bold in the case of a November sweep, and could put moderates who defend the filibuster in an awkward position. It could effectively ensure that democracy reform is at the top of a crowded Democratic Party agenda in 2021.
The former president called for a host of reforms aimed at revitalizing the nation’s democracy and expanding the right to vote, and said Congress should be prepared to eliminate the filibuster in order to pass those reforms.
The Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 decision decided along ideological lines. Obama said Congress should fix the decision, but also make every American automatically registered to vote, extend the franchise to people who have completed their criminal sentences, add additional polling places and opportunities for early voting, and make Election Day a national holiday.
Obama also called for “equal representation in our government” for citizens of Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, neither of which has voting representation in Congress; and for legislation to end political gerrymandering.
Obama did not move to eliminate the legislative filibuster while he was president, even as Republicans deployed it to stop or delay virtually all of the president’s legislative priorities, but has spoken about its negative influence.
“Adding the filibuster, I think, has made it almost impossible for us to effectively govern at a time when you have at least one party that is not willing to compromise on issues,” Obama said during an appearance on the podcast of one of his former advisers, David Axelrod.
The filibuster was first regularly deployed by segregationist Southern Democrats in the first half of the 20th century to block civil rights legislation, stymieing anti-lynching legislation and other proposals to protect and expand civil rights.
Both parties have chipped away at the filibuster in recent years. Under Obama, Democrats eliminated the 60-vote requirement for confirming most presidential nominees. Republicans eliminated the ability to filibuster nominations to the Supreme Court in 2017 in order to secure Neil Gorsuch’s seat on the nation’s highest court.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, was a long-serving senator who was known for respecting the institution’s traditions, but has recently expressed some interest in eliminating the 60-vote requirement, which has long been used to block progressive policy priorities.
“We’re going to have to remember what John said: ‘If you don’t do everything you can to change things, they’re going to remain the same. You only pass this way once,’” Obama said.
Obama’s comments appeared to have had an immediate impact. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and has long resisted calling for a formal end to the filibuster, said it was time to do away with the 60-vote requirement.
“President Obama is absolutely right,” Sanders said. “It is an outrage that modern-day poll taxes, gerrymandering, ID requirements, and other forms of voter suppression still exist today. We must pass a comprehensive agenda to guarantee the rights and dignity of everyone in this country. And that means, among other things, reauthorizing and expanding the Voting Rights Act, for which Congressman John Lewis put his life on the line.”
“As President Obama said, if that requires us to eliminate the filibuster, then that is what we must do,” Sanders concluded.