Why You Should Care About The Senate Filibuster

A hand-colored engraving of The United States Senate, A.D. 1850

Similar to most people currently in their 20s, I came of age during a period of instability: the worst economy since the Great Depression, mass protests, riots, and ultimately, the violent storming of the US Capitol. In line with most of Gen-Z / Millennials, it’s become my mission to change our social and political systems to help our country fulfill its founding idealism. To make substantive progress, through legislative or social change, the first step would be to abolish the Senate filibuster.

Unlike common belief, the filibuster was not part of the original design of the Senate. It was, by many accounts, created by mistake. In 1789, the first US Senate adopted a rule called the ‘previous question’ motion, which allowed for a senator to end a debate with only a simple majority vote. In 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr advised that this rule was redundant and should be removed. Given the fact that it had only been used once in the prior 4 years, Vice President Burr’s argument centered around the idea that there is no need to keep a rule that ended a debate when it was never used. The still newly-formed Senate followed through on Burr’s advice and got rid of the ‘previous question’ motion in 1806.

When the Senate took the advice of Aaron Burr, they unintentionally created what we now call the filibuster because there was now no way to formally end the debate process. While Senators did not initially take advantage of this procedural debate loophole until 1837, it is now a common tactic the minority party uses to cripple the majority’s power to pass legislation and has historically been used to crush civil rights legislation in particular.

A line graph showing the rapidly increasing number of filibusters enacted in the Senate by measuring the amount of cloture motions filed

This tactic was especially visible at the beginning of the Obama administration. Democrats had the majority in both chambers of Congress and had secured the presidency, but Senate Minority Leader McConnell organized the Republican party to obstruct any and every proposal in the Senate, no matter what it was. By doing so he hoped to create the perception that Democrats could not govern and needed to be voted out. It worked. The Democrats lost 63 seats in the house and 6 seats in the Senate in the following 2010 midterm election, ultimately ending the Democrats’ governing trifecta majority.

While many people argue that the filibuster is an important tool of the minority that forces bipartisanship from the majority, this perspective misconstrues the dynamics of bipartisanship and falsely prioritizes the fear of an incompetent majority over the ability to sustain a working democracy. Correcting this misunderstanding and incorrect prioritization would have three profound and positive consequences that could greatly impact the productivity and effectiveness of our Federal Government.

First, elimination of the Senate filibuster would allow a party, once they take power, to pass legislation which demonstrates the views of the people who voted them in, ensuring that the voters’ interests are being taken to heart. If the public sees a working democracy that produces good, tangible changes for their lives, voters will work to keep the current majority party in power.

Second, if the party in power has the ability to pass ‘bad’ legislation, the voters will know exactly whom to blame. If Democrats or Republicans can effectively govern while in office, then the voters will have a clearer understanding as to what viable policies each party espouses. Currently, outside of a single budget reconciliation bill each budgetary cycle, our political parties can’t deliver on the policy proposals that resonated with the voters that got them elected, and many people have no idea why. Legitimate political and policy tactics that make sense to elected officials and bureaucrats appear to the public as games that get in the way of progress. With the minority party able to indefinitely stall deliberation over legislation, the power of the elected party is wasted and the public is left with mistrust and a lack of understanding for the DC political shenanigans. If we want voters to trust our democracy, then they must be able to make clear connections between parties, the legislation they pursue, and the tangible accomplishments and benefits they can deliver to voters.

Third, the end of the filibuster would incentivize bipartisan collaboration once again. Many people think that bipartisanship is impossible because the other party is wrong, immoral, or cannot begin to understand the right laws to pass. The majority party is inherently motivated to pass truly bipartisan legislation because it makes them look better politically. Parties that pass popular legislation are seen to govern well and be capable of winning again. In reality, bipartisan collaboration is no longer incentivized within our current system. Why should the minority party collaborate if they can simply obstruct the majority from governing and, by doing so, win points with their voters or otherwise improve their political standing? The filibuster is the most effective tool that allows the minority party to obstruct laws instead of collaborating on them.

While never intended as a weapon of obstruction, the filibuster has evolved into a tool that is consistently used to prevent the majority party from pursuing the will of the voters. Unless this tool of the minority gets taken away, then our elected officials, regardless of party or partisan policies, will not be able to govern effectively. This will ultimately continue to fracture our democratic system and the public trust. While I’m not at all claiming that filibuster reform will solve all of our problems or create some bipartisan utopia, it is the first step needed to allow our democracy to work in the way we learned it should.

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Urban Planning, Political Organizing, and Effective Governing

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Nicholas Levi

Nicholas Levi

Urban Planning, Political Organizing, and Effective Governing

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