If you’re under the impression that the filibuster is an important tool in the toolbox of American democracy, you’ve been misled.
The filibuster is a made-up Senate convention that lets a minority of senators block votes on bills that have majority support. Under current rules, just 41 senators can sink legislation this way.
In the past, filibusters were used only rarely. But with Republicans filibustering virtually everything these days, it now takes 60 Senate votes to pass anything at all. That’s a tall hurdle in our polarized age.
The main argument for the filibuster is that it promotes bipartisanship and debate, but research has repeatedly debunked that.
According to supporters, allowing a minority of senators to extend deliberation on a bill indefinitely forces the majority to negotiate a version that the minority feels more comfortable with. This leads, supporters contest, to legislation that appeals to the broadest number of people.
That sounds nice. But peel back the onion a bit and it’s clear that the filibuster just adds to the gridlock around issues voters want resolved.
A new University of Chicago study, for example, found that the filibuster did not “enhance the Senate’s consideration of laws.” Instead, “the filibuster detracts from, rather than bolsters, public discussion on the floors of Congress.”
This makes sense. Why would a committed minority debate or compromise on a bill they can simply kill altogether?
In Republicans’ case, it means they can stop Democrats — who won a clear mandate in the House, Senate, and presidency — from delivering the policies they promised. As a result, popular ideas like voting rights, police reform, immigration reform, and an independent commission to investigate the January 6th insurrection are all getting stonewalled.
It gets even worse when you factor in that the Senate already over-represents less populated and often more conservative states. According to one figure, senators representing just over 20 percent of the country can block legislation that even overwhelming majorities of voters want.
As you might imagine, this has made the filibuster a powerful political weapon, which unfortunately has been used to cause harm — particularly in the area of civil rights.
A group of southern senators in 1922, for instance, used it to kill a bill that would have let the federal government prosecute people who participated in lynchings. Years later, South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond famously filibustered for over 24 hours straight, the longest individual filibuster ever, to try and tank the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
More recently, Republicans have used the filibuster to block major voting rights bills like the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would have strengthened election security and made it easier to vote.
These voting rights bills were filibustered in a time of rising voter suppression. According to the Voting Rights Lab, 385 bills that restrict voter access have already been introduced in 2022 alone.
Most Democrats now agree that the filibuster needs to be eliminated or reformed. But two of their own, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have joined Republicans in defending the practice. Both recently voted against making a “voting rights exception” to the 60-vote threshold.
They could have kept their commitment, however misguided, to the filibuster while still voting to make a one-off rules tweak to bring the voting rights bills up for a vote. This would have treated voting rights the same way as judicial confirmations and budget reconciliations, which can’t be filibustered.
Is there hope for filibuster reform in the future? I think so.
Manchin and especially Sinema could face primary challengers when they’re up for re-election in a few years, and support for the filibuster is likely to be a line in the sand for voters. Alternatively, if Democrats expand their Senate majority, they may be able to reform the filibuster even without those two.
Either way, the days of the filibuster appear limited.