Eliminate the Filibuster

One Step Towards A Better Democracy

https://www.intoon.com/cartoons.cfm/id/91192 (Mike Keefe)

The election outcome of 2020, at first glance, appears to be a massive victory for the Democrats. However, right now, it’s proving to not be enough. This is due to one specific reason: the filibuster. The rules of the Senate state that the filibuster has the power to halt the passage of a bill that already has majority support by the Senate. There are two main ways this can be done. The less common, but much more dramatic method, is when a senator stands up and gives a speech about the bill. This takes a considerable amount of energy, since talking for hours on end is not easy. The record for the longest filibuster belongs to Strom Thurmon, with an impressive 24 hours and 18 minutes. These speeches can sound pointless and sometimes funny, such as when Ted Cruz read Green Eggs and Ham as part of his. The second, and more common filibuster, is a lot more simple: do not provide the 60 votes needed to end debating and begin voting. This, unfortunately, is now done commonly. It’s becoming obvious to see that the filibuster, as it is now, is dangerous to American democracy. It needs to be reformed, or better, outright abolished.

This is not to say that it has always been a bad idea. Though it took some time to get its name, the filibuster dates back to the 1780s. It was uncommon at the time, since the only real method was just to talk for as long as possible. The popularity of it grew in the mid-1800s when it was given its name from the Spanish pirate term “filibusteros.” Over time, the filibuster was used for some good reasons. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin used it to help protect freedom of speech during WWI and Huey P. Long utilized it to fight a bill he claimed would benefit the rich and hurt the poor. However, many of its uses are not so glamorous. For example, the bill Strom Thurmon performed his record-breaking filibuster against, was actually the Civil Rights Bill of 1957. In fact, Southern senators were infamous for using the filibuster to stall civil rights bills. Even the well-known 1964 Civil Rights Act was almost killed this way.

Currently, the only way to defeat a filibuster is cloture. This term refers to the 60, previously 67, votes required to end a debate on a bill. It has been the saving grace for a few important measures, such as the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. However, cloture was always very difficult to use. In the 40 years after the Treaty was saved, cloture was only used five more times. Eventually, in 1975, the number of votes needed for cloture was reduced to 60, which is when it became more common. Currently, cloture is essentially the only way Democrats can get what they want passed. The Republicans are already showing that they will filibuster almost any legislation brought forward. This is something that is not new, as it has been done by both parties, for years. This is a massive issue for a number of reasons.

Take, for example, the recent stimulus package. The main reason it managed to get through the Senate is that Democrats sanctioned it as a budget bill, which the filibuster is not allowed to be used on. This can be seen as a dirty trick, also used by former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2017. Though, dirty or not, both of these bills would probably never have seen the light of day without this sanction, as the use of the filibuster was almost inevitable. However, passing a bill as a budget, to avoid the filibuster, is not optimal either. In fact, it proves that the filibuster is failing in its main objective. The tactic is intended to protect the people against the “tyranny of the majority,” which refers to the vast, sometimes dangerous, changes that the majority in power try to bring. Instead, what’s supposed to happen, is a reasonable debate between the majority and minority that results in a bill enough people are happy with. This happened with neither the stimulus package nor the tax cut. The only two options were to have it delayed, to the point where it becomes dead, or ram it through before the other side can object. Regardless of parties, most of those on either side can agree that this is not sustainable.

What happens when the filibuster prevents almost everything from happening? The answer to that question can be seen now. Almost nothing effective can get through Congress. Bipartisan efforts are rare. A bill is either immediately seen as good by both parties, which has always been uncommon, or viewed as bad by one side, and immediately killed. Negotiating and compromising to accomplish what is in both sides’ interests does not happen very often. This is disappointing since that is what the threat of the filibuster is supposed to encourage in the first place. Then, there is the filibuster itself. A single senator talking for over 10 hours straight is not at all what a debate should be. When singing, sharing recipes, and reading straight out of a phone book happens in Congress, something should immediately not feel right. Amazingly, these have all occurred during filibusters. This is a useless waste of time for senators, who could instead, be spending time negotiating about bills to make them appealing to one another.

Due to the Senate’s ineptitude in getting things done, most important matters are now done through executive orders, which have become increasingly common over the last few presidencies. While executive orders can be useful and necessary in various ways, this is not the way democracy was supposed to function according to our Founding Fathers. Single-handedly creating what are essentially laws, as a common practice, sounds similar to what a king does, which is what our nation opposed in the first place. Hopefully, the Biden administration is where this comes to an end. The Democrats want to kill the filibuster once and for all. This will probably not happen anytime soon, as two of the 50 Democratic senators needed to be in favor of it are opposed. However, Joe Manchin, one of the said opposed senators, has said he would be open to changing the way it works, so it is harder to use and less common. Regardless of whether it’s reformed or outright removed, the way the filibuster currently works is not a sustainable way to run a nation.