History of the filibuster

Paul Navis

During the 2020 Election, voters gave the Democratic Party control of the White House and put the Senate to a 50/50 split, where Vice President Kamala can tie break.  So why does it seem to many that things are still not happening in Congress? The reason is that Republicans are able to invoke the filibuster, a political tool used to stop debate from ending.

The filibuster is a tool used by Congress in order to force debate to continue. When people refer to the filibuster they typically are referring to rules for cloture which requires 60 votes to end debate. This means that the minority party only needs to stop 41 votes to essentially stop legislation from happening at all. 

The filibuster began as an unofficial set of etiquette. According to history.com the filibuster was created as the idea that each representative of congress should get to speak as long as they wanted on an issue. This led to many senators speaking for extended amounts of time. One famous example of this is from Strom Thurmond, from South Carolina, who filibustered for over 24 hours on the Civil Rights Act in 1957.  

According to a report by americanprogress.org, the modern filibuster is based on changes in 1917 and 1974. First, in 1917, the Senate created “cloture” after then President Woodrow Wilson stated the senate essentially was ineffective after 11 senators stopped a bill from passing using an old format of the filibuster. At this point, the senate met and decided that the filibuster would be a way to end debate with a term called cloture which allowed ⅔ of senators present to end debate. Due to the ⅔ requirement, the filibuster was not used often until southern senators pushed against civil rights.  Senators defending the filibuster point to the longstanding tradition of being able to speak as long as they wanted on an issue.

During the1970’s the filibuster began to be used for wider legislation. This led to a reform movement where eventually a bipartisan bill passed to allow three-fifths of the Senate to end debate. The important distinction being that it was now the entire senate and not just those present; This allowed the minority to leave the chamber without worrying about the bill passing without them. Another unique change at this time was that multiple pieces of legislation could now be stopped at one time. In other words, the senate could work on something else giving the minority no real consequence to filibustering. 

While some people are pushing Democrats to kill the filibuster, it currently looks as if there are enough senators to block this from taking place. Many feel it should be reformed instead so that the minority is less likely to use it regularly. These reforms include: making it so that only the filibuster legislation can be worked on or making it so that it is 41 votes to continue debate meaning the minority can not leave the chamber if they wish to stop a bill passing. However, most democrats in office still feel we should do away with the filibuster, which currently is able to give the smaller states in the country even more control than they had. Smaller states however will claim this is the role of the senate.

No matter what happens the filibuster has transformed modern policy making and it is unlikely to change under President Biden. Only time will tell if this will impede his efforts or if they will kill the filibuster to help his agenda.