Can We Just Get Rid of the Filibuster Already?
A once-useful legislative trick has become a tool used to erode democracy
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell loves the filibuster.
Through a series of historical accidents, he’s been handed a tool that allows him to stop the Senate in its tracks — and he doesn’t even have to take to the Senate floor to do so. When Democrats held the majority, McConnell filibustered everything. Now in charge, McConnell relies on the filibuster to grant him plausible deniability as the Republican majority fails to pass any legislation. He doesn’t want to make law; he wants to confirm judges. No matter what dreams of bipartisan harmony centrists like Joe Biden cling to, the Senate’s status quo is and will remain inaction.
Unless, that is, Democrats decide that they are ready to stop clinging to their fantasies about the history and potential of the “greatest deliberative body in the world.”
First, a quick primer. Broadly speaking, a filibuster is a procedural rule wherein a politician debates proposed legislation for the express purpose of creating a roadblock toward a decision around that legislation. Filibusters have been used by politicians of all ideological stripes: In 1957, for example, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond spoke for over 24 hours in an attempt to stymie the Civil Rights Act; six decades later, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley spoke for over 15 hours to oppose Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. And whereas the filibuster once required a senator to literally hold the floor and speak, a rule in change in the 1970s decreed that it was enough for a senator to simply announce intent to filibuster — that alone is enough to impose a theoretical blockade on the legislation.
A majority of Democratic senators continue to support the unwieldy mechanism under the belief that by allowing any senator, whatever their rank, the opportunity to speak, the filibuster ensures our system of checks and balances remains intact. Yet, on the national stage, a push for change seems to be taking shape. Filibuster reform, a decidedly non-sexy technical issue, is somehow becoming a hot topic among the Democratic presidential hopefuls. At the heart of the debate is a simple question: Is the filibuster really useful?