Traditionally, the Senate filibuster was reserved for only the most controversial issues, but its use has escalated in recent years, often slowing business in the chamber to a halt. Some lawmakers acknowledge that the filibuster, which has effectively set a 60-vote supermajority requirement for passing legislation in the Senate, could doom many of the proposals they have championed, including meaningful reforms on issues ranging from health care to climate change to gun control. Behind this dysfunction, the filibuster also has a troubling legacy: it has often been used to block civil rights legislation intended to combat racial discrimination.
As advocates push for pro-democracy legislation, calls for eliminating the filibuster have grown louder. In his remarks at the funeral of civil rights hero and congressman John Lewis in July 2020, former President Barack Obama called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic,” arguing that the procedure should be eliminated if it is used to block voting reforms. Others note that certain types of legislation are already exempt from the filibuster’s supermajority requirement and argue that a similar exemption should be made for voting rights.The stakes were raised in March 2021, when the For the People Act — a comprehensive democracy reform bill — was passed by the House of Representatives and introduced in the Senate, where the filibuster may determine its fate. Whether through elimination or reform, the filibuster cannot be allowed to impede the expansion of Ameican democracy or the rights of all eligible voters.
What is the filibuster?
The filibuster is a 19th-century procedural rule in the Senate that allows any one senator to block or delay action on a bill or other matter by extending debate. While a final vote in the Senate requires a simple majority of 51 votes, a supermajority, or 60 votes, is needed to start or end debate on legislation so it can proceed to a final vote. Therefore, even if a party has a slim majority in the Senate, it still needs a supermajority to even move forward with legislation a tall task for a hyper-partisan Washington. The House of Representatives does not use the filibuster. Instead, a simple majority can end debate.
How can the filibuster rule be changed?
Senators have carved out exceptions to the filibuster rule before.One option to do so is called “going nuclear” — when senators override an existing rule, such as the number of votes needed to end debate. This is usually done by lowering the threshold needed to end a filibuster to 50 votes.In 2017, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, clearing the way for then-President Donald Trump’s first nominee to be confirmed.
Why a call for change now?
In the last 50 years, the filibuster has been used more and more to kill major legislation. And with Biden’s agenda stalled, Democrats are calling for a carve out to pass voting rights legislation. In the last year, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. If the threshold to end debate on a bill is lowered to 50 votes, for instance, Democrats could end debate on their voting reform bill and eventually move to a final vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate to pass the legislation. Incidentally, Harris, as president of the Senate, would play a key role in any potential rules change. She would be expected to occupy the chair and preside over any rule change action.
What’s the difference between “talking” and “silent” filibusters?
Filibusters traditionally involved long speeches in which a senator attempted to block a vote from proceeding by refusing to yield the floor. To stage such a “talking” filibuster, a senator would hold the floor by standing and talking for as long as they could, sometimes overnight. This was popularized in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The longest filibuster ever recorded, by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, lasted for more than 24 hours. But since the early 1970s, senators have been able to use a “silent” filibuster. Anytime a group of 41 or more senators simply threatens a filibuster, the Senate majority leader can refuse to call a vote.
How has the filibuster changed over time?
The use of the filibuster, once reserved for only the most controversial issues, has increased dramatically in recent years alongside growing polarization in Washington. There have been more than 2,000 filibusters since 1917; about half have been in just the last 12 years. Critics argue that this increased use has slowed business in the Senate to a halt, often entangling the chamber in procedural maneuvering instead of substantive debate and, ultimately, lawmaking.
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