Opinion: Joe Manchin finally makes it plain: He is in favor of minority rule


HR King
May 29, 2001
By Greg Sargent
Today at 10:39 a.m. EST

When the Senate debates voting rights proposals on Wednesday night, it will represent the culmination of a year-long effort to persuade two conservative Democrats to stop granting a minority the power to veto any and all efforts to protect democracy from ongoing attacks on it.
Opinions to start the day, in your inbox. Sign up.
Fittingly enough, one of those two Democrats — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — has marked the occasion by making it as plain as day what’s really at the core of this stance. It’s unabashed, affirmative support for a Senate governed by the ability of the minority to dictate outcomes to the majority.
Manchin has mostly avoided saying this directly. Instead, he has made narrow procedural and normative objections: He has argued that protecting democracy in particular must be bipartisan so both parties have buy-in. He has signaled openness to filibuster reform, but only if Republicans also favor it. He has claimed the filibuster is valuable because it facilitates bipartisanship.

But now Manchin has left no doubt: He wants to preserve a Senate where minorities can dictate outcomes because he sees this as an inherent good in and of itself, as something that is superior to a majority-rule one.
Manchin revealed this in comments to reporters on Tuesday night, slamming the door on efforts to pass by simple majority two Democratic proposals that would protect voting rights and safeguard elections.
The Manchin quote getting attention is this one: “I just don’t know how you break a rule to make a rule.” This means he won’t support suspending the filibuster with just 51 votes, because this would violate precedent dictating that supermajorities are needed to change rules.
But far more telling is what came next. Manchin said this:
There’s no checks and balances in this process. The only thing we have is the filibuster. And if you have a situation we have right now where you have the executive branch of government, and you have Congress, the House and the Senate — and they’re all the same, and there’s no check and balance.
Because basically, [things] just sweep right through, and the same thing can happen if Republicans had everything.
Manchin added that on this matter, Democrats have “changed their minds.” He said: “I haven’t.”

Here Manchin reveals that to him, the filibuster’s affirmative value is that it is a “check” the minority can exercise to prevent the majority party from passing laws. The filibuster is a positive good precisely because it can stop that majority party from unilaterally dictating its way, even if it was legitimately elected by popular majorities to positions of control over the branches of government.
I checked in with James Wallner, a longtime Senate aide and rules expert who writes regularly on Senate procedure. Wallner noted that this from Manchin constitutes an unwitting admission of sorts that critics of the filibuster are right about it.

Wallner added that Manchin has effectively admitted that he actively wants the minority to have that power. This constitutes “giving the minority a veto they don’t otherwise have,” Wallner continued, adding that permitting this to remain in place allows “the minority to determine what ultimately is going to happen.”
What’s also striking is that this badly undermines a leading argument for keeping the filibuster, i.e., that it facilitates bipartisanship. As Wallner noted, Manchin is declaring that the filibuster’s virtue lies expressly in the fact that it gives the minority the ability to “say no.”
“That’s at face value what Manchin was saying,” Wallner told me.
On Wednesday night, Democrats will attempt procedural maneuvers to try to pass their voting rights and democracy bills. With the filibuster carve-out dead, they will vote to change the rules to require a “talking filibuster,” which would mean that once senators are done speaking, the filibuster ends.

But that change will likely fail due to opposition from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). The GOP filibuster will carry the day, and the voting rights and democracy bills will die.
If so, Manchin and Sinema will bask as Republican senators thank them for saving bipartisanship and the Senate (while privately chortling at what useful accessories they have become). Manchin and Sinema will positively drip with phony sanctimony as they lament that rabidly partisan Democrats have lost their way.
In that regard, in one sense Manchin is right: Many Democrats did previously agree with him about the filibuster. Before they might mostly have agreed that the filibuster might force bipartisan cooperation under certain circumstances, and wanted to preserve it for themselves.
But now the vast majority in both caucuses believe it has evolved to become almost exclusively a destructive force, a weapon for withholding bipartisanship and stymieing legislative progress for purely cynical political purposes.


The reason for this evolution among Democrats is that times have changed. Polarization and partisanship have soared. The two parties have sharply diverged on core questions about the underlying rules of political competition and how inclusive and participatory our democracy should be. In that context, the filibuster has become a tool that helps enable the minority to impose that vision of democracy itself on the majority.
Manchin’s revelation here is that he sees the filibuster even in this evolved role as a good thing. He believes it’s worth preserving precisely because it allows that minority to dictate outcomes, despite the tool of obstruction and destruction this mechanism has obviously become in the real world.