Understanding the Filibuster
Purpose and History of the Filibuster
The filibuster was initially conceived of as a way to ensure that minority opinions were heard and understood before the Senate voted on an issue. Senate rules first allowed for filibusters in 1806, though the first filibuster actually occurred more than 30 years later, in 1837. They continued to be rare for more than another century.
The idea behind the filibuster was simple: As long as a senator kept talking on the floor, a bill could not move forward. Throughout the 19th century, the Senate left ending the filibuster up to the filibustering senators. When they felt they had been adequately heard, they could give up the floor and allow debate to move on to a vote.
In 1917, at the behest of President Wilson, the Senate adopted a procedure known as the cloture vote, which could end a filibuster. If a cloture vote is called for, a super-majority of senators can force an end to debate and bring the question under consideration to an up-or-down vote. Initially, achieving cloture required a vote from two thirds of all elected senators; the number was later changed to three fifths of all elected senators. For the next sixty years, the filibuster continued to be used sparingly.
In 1975, though, the Senate made a change that made it significantly easier to filibuster by adopting rules that allow other business to be conducted while a filibuster is, technically underway. Since 1975, senators have not needed to stand up on the floor and make their case to their colleagues and their constituents in order to halt legislation. Instead, these “virtual filibusters” can be conducted in absentia.
Use of the Filibuster
The filibuster has been used 1,300 times since 1917. However, the vast majority of those filibusters have taken place in recent years.
Filibuster use began to increase dramatically in the 1970s. Even so, there still had only been a grand total of 413 Senate filibusters by 1990. Over the last 12 years, however, the filibuster was used nearly 600 times!
These filibusters aren’t just being used to extend debates or stall votes—today, senators filibuster motions to proceed, preventing bills from being debated at all. A device intended to promote comprehensive discussion has turned into a tool to keep ideas from even being heard.
Effects of the Filibuster
Even with the 1975 rules change allowing the Senate to conduct other business while a filibuster is underway, every filibuster kicks off a complex set of Senate procedures that can bring the Senate to a halt for up to a week and prevents other critical issues from being addressed.
Filibusters on motions to proceed prevent the Senate from even being able to consider ideas for how to solve our country’s big problems. For years now, small numbers of senators representing as little as 11% of the country have kept the Senate from even discussing important legislation that has passed committee review.
Virtual Filibusters allow small numbers of senators to effortlessly place personal political agendas above the work of government with no consequence. As a result, even routine Senate functions like approving executive appointees get mired in partisan politics, resulting in 85 vacancies on federal judiciary benches. Major pieces of legislation, including a bill that would have provided medical care for 9/11 responders, have enjoyed majority support in the Senate yet died in the face of filibusters for lack of cloture.
Legislation that should pass into law has been canceled and courts have been thrown into disarray, but the senators who have helped make that happen have never needed to actually make a case to their colleagues or their constituents.
Written by Rick Barry
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