Filibustered: How the Senate chooses not to do anything

I confess I’ve never given a lot of thought to the filibuster. You probably haven’t either. In case you’ve never thought about it (and don’t remember what you learned about it in school), the filibuster is the method that a senator can use to stall the consideration and even the passage of legislation in the U.S. Senate. Since the rule was changed in 1975, it requires 60 percent of the Senate to vote to pass “cloture,” which ends the filibuster. Senators used to have to literally keep talking while filibustering, but these days a member of the minority part can just let the majority leader know they intend to “filibuster” and require the majority party to put together at least 60 votes to pass cloture and move on with consideration of the bill.

There are never this many Senators in the room at the same time, even during a filibuster. (Photo from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” starring Jimmy Stewart)

I was aware that it gives considerable power to whichever party is in the minority. With control of the Senate switching back and forth several times in the past few decades and no party having a filibuster-proof majority of at least 60 seats, it’s allowed whichever party was in the minority (both Democrats and Republicans) to gum up the legislative works and bring most of the work of running the country to a halt.

Filibustering has such a sense of tradition about it. There are plenty of arguments to keep it, and Ezra Klein does a masterful job today of describing – and then poking a hole in – each of them in this article in Vox today.

If Joe Biden wins the White House, and Democrats take back the Senate, there is one decision that will loom over every other. It is a question that dominated no debates and received only glancing discussion across the campaign, and yet it is the master choice that will either unlock their agenda or ensure they fail to deliver on their promises.

That decision? Whether the requirement for passing a bill through the Senate should be 60 votes or 51 votes. Whether, in other words, to eliminate the modern filibuster, and make governance possible again.

If Democrats decide — and it is crucial to say that it would be a decision, a choice — to leave the 60-vote threshold in place, that entire agenda, and far more beyond it, is dead. All those primary debates, all those grand ideas on Joe Biden’s “vision” page, all those mailers and press releases and speeches and vows, will be revealed as promises they never meant to keep.

It’s a great article. A long read, but take the time to read it. If you’ve ever wondered why our leaders can’t seem to do any of things they’ve promised us during an election campaign, here’s your answer: it’s the modern filibuster. It’s overdue to be scrapped so that a majority – of either party – might actually be able to pass legislation again, especially if voters have given a single party control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, which could happen in January as a result of next month’s election.