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Filibuster: Blah Blah Blah Just Blocked the Law

Introduction

Your teacher decides to let your class vote on a reasonable homework limit. Most students seem in favor of placing the limit at 30 minutes a night, but a small group prefers having two hours a night. When your teacher asks the class to vote on the idea, a pro-homework student named Mark raises his hand and talks for over an hour straight. He talks about recess, his favorite book, and hardly even mentions homework. Your class never gets the chance to vote, and you go home with two hours of homework for the night. Mark says he will do this every class until the end of the year. Needing to make time for other classwork, your teacher decides to cancel the vote on homework.

Explanation

While it might seem hard to imagine this happening at school, a similar process occurs regularly in the United States Senate. If some members of the Senate strongly disagree with an upcoming piece of legislation, they have the option to talk as long as they like to indefinitely delay the vote. This event is called a filibuster, and it’s becoming an increasingly difficult challenge for effective governance. 

Definition

A filibuster is a tactic of obstruction in which a Senator can speak on a proposed piece of legislation without end in order to delay or entirely prevent a decision from being made on the proposal.

How It Works

When the Senate is debating on a proposed piece of legislation, a Senator can seek recognition to speak and has a right to the floor if no other Senator is speaking. That Senator may then speak for as long as they like and on topics not even related to the legislation. Senator Ted Cruz famously once read from Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham during a filibuster. 

To prevent or end a filibuster, 60 of the 100 US Senators must agree that they want to move past the filibuster and hold a vote on the proposed legislation. This agreement is called cloture. So while the Senate only needs a simple majority of 51 votes to pass a bill, they need 60 Senators in cloture to get the chance to vote in the first place. 

There are three main exceptions that cannot be filibustered - presidential appointments, Supreme Court nominations, and special budget rules known as the budget reconciliation process. As of 2013 and 2017, respectively, Presidential appointments and Supreme Court nominations can no longer be filibustered. In 2013, a Democratic-controlled Senate limited the use of the filibuster so the Obama administration could move forward with their nominees. In 2017, a Republican-controlled Senate similarly limited the filibuster in order to appoint Supreme Court justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

For all other legislation, achieving cloture is quite difficult in today’s polarized political environment. The result is that few major bills are given the opportunity for a vote.

History

Most trace the filibuster back to 1806 when the Senate eliminated a rule stating that a simple majority could end debate and move to a vote, but they put no restrictions on how long debate could go on. Over 100 years later, in response to a few Senators filibustering a bill during World War 1, the Cloture Rule was created requiring a supermajority vote in the Senate to formally end debate and move to a vote. The need for this supermajority is exactly what founding fathers James Madison and Alexander Hamilton warned would make the Senate ineffective back when they were writing the Federalist Papers in 1788. 

As civil rights legislation began moving through Congress in the 1950s and 60s, Southern Senators realized the power of the filibuster to obstruct progress and started banding together to prevent bills from being voted on. The tension came to a peak when Senators such as Strom Thurmund, Richard Russell, and Robert Byrd filibustered for 60 days, trying to prevent a vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

In an attempt to cut down on the lengthy speeches of filibusters, Senate leader Mike Mansfield made a change to the rules in the 1970s. Instead of going up to talk, Senators could now merely threaten to filibuster, and unless a cloture was reached against them, they would effectively block the bill from going to a vote.

Between the years 1917-1947, there were only about 19 filibusters. Recently, however, use of the filibuster has skyrocketed with over 1,500 occurrences in the past 20 years. 

Why Care?

Filibusters come at a real cost. Bills that otherwise would have passed with a majority vote, such as the Labor Law Reform Act, Fair Employment Practices Bill, and other legislation designed to improve health care, climate change, and civil rights, never had a chance for a vote. And because the Senate is designed to have two Senators from each state regardless of population, 41 Senators representing less than 13% of the US population can technically block any vote even if over 80% of the population supported it.

Getting rid of the filibuster has received support ranging from President Obama to President Trump. Both presidents believe the filibuster gives the minority party too much power to prevent things from getting done, while supporters of the filibuster would say it encourages cooperation, compromise, and debate.

The modern-day filibuster makes the process for passing legislation extremely slow or even nonexistent. Depending on which political party holds the majority of seats in the Senate, you may view this positively or negatively. If a bill you support is prevented from passing, you may be frustrated with the filibuster, but if it's effective at preventing a bill you disagree with, you may be glad it exists.

So is it better to have the ability to pass bills, move forward with an agenda that voters put into power, and effectively govern? Or is encouraging the status quo and ensuring slow government movement worth preventing decisions we may not agree with? Regardless of where you stand, understanding the filibuster is a key component to learning how certain changes in society either will or will not come to be.

Think Further

  1. What do you feel are the most noticeable advantages and disadvantages of the filibuster?
  2. Why do you think the use of the filibuster is so much more common today?
  3. When would a political party be more likely to support or oppose the abolishing of the filibuster? 

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  1. Reynolds, Molly. “What Is The Senate Filibuster, And What Would It Take To Eliminate It?”. Brookings, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/what-is-the-senate-filibuster-and-what-would-it-take-to-eliminate-it/.
  2. “U.S. Senate: Filibuster And Cloture”. Senate.Gov, 2021, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Filibuster_Cloture.htm#:~:text=Using%20the%20filibuster%20to%20delay,a%20vote%20on%20a%20bill.
  3. Klein, Ezra. “7 Myths About The Filibuster”. Vox, 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/5/27/18089312/myths-about-the-filibuster.
  4. Arenberg, Richard A., et al. Defending the Filibuster, Revised and Updated Edition: The Soul of the Senate. 2nd ed., Indiana University Press, 2012. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16gh6xx.
  5. Desjardins, Lisa. “How Does The Filibuster Work?”. PBS Newshour, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/how-does-the-filibuster-work.