Fix the filibuster

When you hear the word “filibuster,” what comes to mind? Maybe it’s the image of a lone figure holding the Senate floor in a heroic effort to resist the whims of a tyrannical majority. Maybe it’s the idea of protecting minority rights, or ensuring fairness, open debate, and measured decision-making.

In reality, the filibuster is none of these things. It has little to do with debate or minority rights, and came about by accident rather than as a deliberate Constitutional provision. In fact, America’s founders intended the Senate to be a strictly majority-rule institution and were ardently opposed to anything resembling the modern filibuster. Today, the filibuster paralyzes our federal government and is a serious obstruction to American democracy.

Any Senator can use the filibuster to prevent the Senate from voting on almost any bill. In order to filibuster, a Senator does not have to hold the Senate floor, debate their colleagues, or even explain why they are filibustering. All they must do to invoke the filibuster is send an email. Then, the filibuster can be maintained indefinitely, killing the bill by preventing the Senate from ever voting on it.

In order to overcome a filibuster, a 60-Senator supermajority can invoke “cloture” which overrides the filibuster and allows the Senate to vote on the bill. The only other means of avoiding the filibuster is the budget reconciliation process, but this restricts a bill’s contents and can be used only once per year.

For most of American history, the filibuster was seldom used and the Senate passed laws with simple majorities. From 1917-1970, the cloture vote (to end a filibuster) was taken 49 times. Since 2010, the cloture vote has been taken over 80 times each, and these votes are seldom successful.

This historical comparison is not meant to glorify the pre-1970 filibuster. Although it was used infrequently, the filibuster of old served one purpose: killing civil rights legislation. From 1877-1964, every civil rights bill that entered the senate was killed by the filibuster. Civil rights legislation failed not because it lacked public support (anti-lynching legislation had 72% public approval in 1937) and not because it was opposed in the House or by Presidents. It failed only because the filibuster made it impossible to clear the Senate. Instead of functioning as a tool to prevent tyranny, the filibuster’s legacy is one of oppression; a means for the powerful few to deprive Americans of basic rights.

Today, almost every significant bill is filibustered in the Senate. Passing a law now requires either the support of a 60-vote supermajority (a rare occurrence) or the use of budget reconciliation. The filibuster has become especially destructive in the present hyper-partisan environment because it incents the minority to obstruct the majority.

Imagine you are a minority party Senator. Should you work across the aisle? If you work with the majority to pass laws and these new laws are effective, voters are likely to attribute this success to the majority party. This means that in the next election cycle, your party will probably stay in the minority and you might even lose your seat.

On the other hand, if you filibuster everything the majority party proposes, they will be unable to pass almost anything. When voters see inaction, they tend to blame the majority party, even if the minority is actually responsible. As a result, your party is likely to gain seats in the next election, and maybe take control of the Senate.

If you collaborate, you will be punished by voters. If you obstruct, you will be rewarded. Recent history has proven obstruction to be an effective political strategy. Effective that is, if like Minority Leader McConnell, you care more about power than about serving your country. Unfortunately, this strategy is less helpful to Americans who want their government to get things done.

The result of nearly constant filibustering is that the Senate, and federal government as a whole, are unproductive, dysfunctional, and increasingly fail to meet the needs of the country. This is a huge problem, because the United States is in dire need of legislative action to solve challenges ranging from climate change to child poverty. We have policy solutions that can help solve these problems and improve our country. But our federal legislature is increasingly incapable of passing laws, implementing solutions, and functioning as the founders intended.

Fortunately, there is a solution. With a simple majority, the Senate can establish a new precedent that places a time limit on the filibuster. Senators could still filibuster to protest a bill and extend debate, but could no longer kill a bill with an endless filibuster. If you want to end our current state of legislative paralysis and strengthen the United States, I urge you to contact Senators Stabenow and Peters (or your state’s Senators) and tell them to amend the filibuster and return the Senate to a majority-rule institution.

Nick Wilson is a junior at Boston College and is studying environmental sciences.


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