In 1806, our young Senate eliminated the process for terminating debates, which made filibusters theoretically possible. Filibusters, consequentially, became a procedural tool, allowing minority opinions of either party to be heard before votes were cast, a seemingly reasonable practice. It did not take much time, however, for filibusters to be misused and/or overused. Who’s to blame, the tool or the people using the tool?
A filibuster, in legislative practice, is now a parliamentary tactic used in the Senate by a minority of senators (sometimes as few as a single senator) to delay or prevent parliamentary action. This involves talking on the floor for such a length of time that the majority either tires and grants concessions, or totally withdraws the bill. The Senate, unlike our House of Representatives in which rules actually limit speaking time, allows senators an unlimited debate on a bill.
What started out as perhaps a useful tactic has graduated into an all-together different animal, can be very unproductive, and is something that now needs taming. Additionally, the filibuster, which was once used much more sparingly, has now had a dramatic rise in use over the past few decades. Before 1990, this tool had only been used 413 times in total, but in the last 12 years alone, it has been used close to 600 times. Earlier measures to reduce the beast’s power included President Wilson’s push for the Senate to adopt a “cloture vote”, a tool that has the ability to end a filibuster. When a cloture vote is called, a 30-hour window exists before a final vote must be held, placing limits on the amount of stalling time. Even with the cloture rule, however, filibusters remained an effective means to block legislation since achieving a two-thirds vote (part of the new rule) is difficult. In addition, by 1975 rules were further changed to make it even easier to invoke cloture, requiring just a three-fifths majority vote to end a filibuster, or 60 votes. Efforts to halt filibusters thus remained challenging since 41 senators can indefinitely block a bill by refusing to end theoretical debate or vote for cloture (this is not a simple majority vote).
President Wilson once denounced senators who too easily stalled proposals and rendered our government helpless and contemptible by use of the filibuster, and throughout history, many more have debated the merits of this tool. What was once an important tactic for empowering a minority party that otherwise would have little sway in the Senate seems to have given way to it playing too much of a role and is undemocratic in the way it can paralyze the ability of the majority to act. The tool has become one that prolongs debate almost indefinitely, halting any progress on a bill. Senators now turn to the filibuster more frequently in an effort to thwart the majority party. Apart from nominations, filibusters have become so engrained within the Senate’s process that new bills generally do not even go to vote unless the leadership is assured they have at least 60 votes. A cry for correction is now being heard by many who care more about the health of our people’s democracy and less about politicking.
Research states that conservatives tend to like the filibuster more than liberals do since the filibuster makes it harder to create new federal programs, a fundamental goal of small-government conservatism. Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to feel constrained by the filibuster in their efforts to expand the government’s role. Add to this, the troubling dilemma/fear that by eliminating this tool by any current majority, it will eventually make it harder when they are back in the minority. Along with this realization is the fact that by eliminating the filibuster, it takes away the greatest single power of any senator within the chamber. Getting rid of the filibuster would reduce each senator’s individual leverage. It is not hard to imagine that any senator, majority or otherwise, would not want to relinquish this tremendous, if not misused, power. All that being said, authorities on the topic say that the filibuster’s decades of use in opposition to civil rights alone has bequeathed it a historical stain as just one example of its misuse.
Is it not time to lay aside what is best for Republicans vs. Democrats when it comes to the filibuster? Instead, we need to look to the bigger picture of our nation as a whole, so that more can be done to truly fulfill all American’s needs more effectively. Elimination of the filibuster will strengthen the soul of our democracy and reduce the cynicism that has warped us all. After all, the power rests not in this tool that we call the filibuster, but in the hands of those who’ve (mis)used it.