News & Politics

The Senate Is a Mess. This Former Staffer Knows How to Fix It.

Adam Jentleson's new book is a perfectly timed look at why the filibuster is so destructive.

Photograph by Hannah Galliosborn

As a high-level aide to Harry Reid back when he was Senate majority leader, Adam Jentleson got an up-close look at how the Senate works—or, more often, doesn’t work. Now he’s written a book, Kill Switch, that explains what the problem is and offers concrete steps to fix it.

So this is a pretty depressing book. It’s about how the filibuster has basically broken the Senate.

People tend to think the filibuster is a foundational feature of the Senate, and they tend to associate it with long-winded speeches in the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington model. Both of those things are totally incorrect. The filibuster did not even come into existence until more than half a century after the Senate was created. And the filibuster is simply a way for any single senator to raise the threshold for passing a bill from the simple majority—where the framers set it and where Senate rules still put it—all the way up to a supermajority of 60 votes. Instead of a long-winded speech, it is a silent but deadly procedural tool.

So bills that might easily pass never get a vote.

That’s right. These bills aren’t even getting an actual vote. They’re failing on procedural motions, but it’s just become accepted that procedural motions substitute for the final vote. And that is a very recent development. It’s something we’ve accepted as normal but it’s really only in the last few decades that this has come to be common for most major legislation. For the vast majority of its existence, the Senate was a majority-rule body.

The public perception wouldn’t matter so much if it didn’t have such a damaging effect on our ability to craft thoughtful policy solutions to the challenges we face today. Right now, the filibuster prevents our entire federal government from passing common-sense solutions that have broad bipartisan support, because any single senator can impose the filibuster. And then a minority of 40 senators—who can collectively represent as little as 11 percent of the population—can sustain the filibuster and block any bill from passing. The way this works in practice—on balance, in the way it’s used—is reactionary white conservatives from generally relatively low-population states that are predominantly white themselves exercise veto power over all federal legislation that our country seeks to pass. That is a problem in a country that is rapidly diversifying, and it creates a widening disconnect between the American people and the policy solutions that their government is able to pass, which is a fundamentally unhealthy dynamic for democracy.

How do you work on a book like this without walking around furious all the time?

[Laughs.] That’s exactly what my wife said. But for me, it was a bit cathartic because I walked around furious the whole time I was working in the Senate. The book provided an opportunity to run down and examine these facts of life that had been driving me crazy. When you’re there, you’re given very vague answers about why things are the way they are. The Senate is not a particularly self-aware institution. It tends to embrace its own myths and it’s very invested in its own self-mythologizing.

When you ask, “Why is it commonly accepted that all bills need to be 60 votes?” the answer’s generally along the lines of, well, this reflects the wisdom of the ages handed down by generations of senators. What was fulfilling to me about the book was when you look at the history, that’s simply not true. It’s a history of small groups of people making ambitious power plays driven by their own narrow political interests, and then trying to shroud them in rhetoric about lofty Senate tradition. More often than not, that tradition they try to spin has no connection to reality.

You have the sense that this can’t possibly be the way it was supposed to be. So it was fulfilling to chase down the history and see that it really was not supposed to be this way. And with a realistic level of reform it could be made to be different.

Mitch McConnell’s refusal to allow a vote on $2,000 stimulus payments seems like a particularly stark example. Why aren’t more Americans angry about the filibuster situation?

Look, writing about Senate procedure is hard enough. Getting people motivated and excited is even harder. It’s a very abstract concept. I think it’s connected to this pretty damaging public perception of what the filibuster is. People associate the filibuster with Jimmy Stewart. It’s a high hurdle to explain why that’s wrong and why it needs to change. I do think that is changing.

What are the chances the Senate will get rid of the filibuster now that the Democrats have taken back control?

I think it’s somewhat inevitable, at least if Biden wants to get anything done. The political environment we’re living in provides extraordinarily strong incentives for Republicans to obstruct. They look at Democrats clinging to narrow majorities in the House and Senate, they look at the midterms coming up in 2022, and they think, “All we have to do to take back the House and Senate is make Democrats look bad.” That’s very easy to do when you need ten or more votes from Republicans in the Senate to pass just about anything at all.

There’s a lot of talk of passing things through reconciliation. I think that’s sort of a mirage. It could work at the beginning, but it leaves you high and dry on critical things like democracy reforms and climate change. So it may take some time for the reality to settle in, but come summer or fall, I think the administration is going be staring out at the prospect of total futility—with the only option for getting things done being a push for reform.

The good news is that Biden has an extraordinary level of credibility with Senators themselves if he chooses to push for reform. It’s obviously not his first preference, and it may take him some time to get there, but if he decides it’s necessary, he has more credibility than probably any living human when he calls up the reluctant Senators and says, “You know I wouldn’t do this if it weren’t necessary, but this is what we have to do.”

To me, the book acts as a sort of companion piece to Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, which is a deep dive into Lyndon Johnson’s struggles with the filibuster. Is that book kind of a touchstone for you?

Oh, absolutely. That book completely shaped my view of the Senate and is one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve read it three or four times now. Caro did an incredible job of marrying the personalities with the institution and showing how the institution itself is really a function of these outsized personalities. And I don’t think he pulled any punches on the prevalence of white supremacy and racism in the decision-making process in the Senate.

I get the feeling McConnell might have spent a lot of time studying its lessons. Should incoming Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer maybe spend some time studying the lessons in your book?

[Laughs.] Listen, I think Schumer wants to be a consequential majority leader. I think he wants to do big things and hopefully build a record to rival Lyndon Johnson, and that’s the future that I want for him, too. But I do think the hard reality is that’s not going to happen unless there are major reforms to the Senate rules, probably including reforming the filibuster.

Politics and Culture Editor

A DC native, Rob Brunner moved back to the city in 2017 to join Washingtonian. Previously, he was an editor and writer at Fast Company and other publications. He has also written for the New York Times Magazine, New York, and Rolling Stone, among others. He lives with his family in Chevy Chase DC.