The filibuster has been in the news a lot lately. With the increasing polarization in Congress, Democrats in the Senate have been advocating abolishing the filibuster since the end of 2020. With holdouts like Dem. Sen. Joe Manchin III who has said that he will not vote to end it, Democrats are unable to move forward with abolishing the filibuster, which would make it easier to get much of their progressive legislation passed.
But what is the filibuster? Simply put, it is a mechanism in the Senate that gives the minority party more control over a piece of legislation. Historically, to filibuster meant to actively speak on the Senate floor in order to delay the legislative process and prevent a vote from taking place. Now, senators do not need to stand on the floor. A senator can simply invoke the filibuster, and unless there are 60 votes to overrule the filibuster (this is called cloture), the bill is essentially stopped in its tracks. Democrats today argue that since Republicans are constantly filibustering their legislation, Congress has essentially become a minority rule legislature. Even though Democrats control the White House, House of Representatives, and (narrowly) the Senate, they cannot pass progressive legislation because of this. Of course, a democracy is by definition “majority rule,” so many argue that by keeping the filibuster in place, it is preventing democracy from happening. This begs the question: why did the filibuster begin in the first place?
Really, filibusters have existed since the beginning of our Constitution. In September 1789, Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay wrote that the “design of the Virginians… was to talk away the time, so that we could not get the bill passed.” Long, seemingly pointless speeches have been eating up legislation from the beginning. But it was not until 1917 that cloture was established. From then, if 2/3 of the Senate voted to, the debate (the filibuster) would end. Then a vote could take place. In 1975, that vote changed to only 60/100 Senators instead of 67. The trajectory of U.S. history, then, is to curb the stalling nature of filibuster in order to keep Congress doing its job: to legislate.
Today, as debate continues over what to do with the filibuster, this history should help. When the filibuster becomes more than just a tool of the minority party to force compromise, but rather becomes a tool to prevent “the other side” from winning, perhaps reform is needed.
Does this mean the filibuster should be abolished? Well, Democrats may not like the long term consequences of its abolition once they no longer control Congress. Then, Republicans, or some future party, could pass sweeping legislation in the same way they hope to now. Still, as our history reminds us, reform is often good and necessary. It’s why we have amendments, it’s why we have term limits for presidents, and it’s why we have a Supreme Court to interpret laws and how they may change over time. Now, it’s just Congress’s job to figure out what reform goes beyond just helping the particular political cause of the moment and actually strengthens the Constitutional system that has existed for more than two centuries.