By Yuto K. ’23
Ever since the Democrats took back the Senate majority by winning the two runoff elections in Georgia and President Joe Biden took office on January 20th of this year, a constant question has been floated around the political world from senators, analysts, and the common people. Should the filibuster be abolished? If so, are there even enough votes in the Senate?
The filibuster is a procedure used to extend debate or delay and even prevent a vote on any bill or resolution that comes to the Senate floor. To end the filibuster, which is called “cloture”, three-fifth of the senators’ votes are required. Currently, many Democrats are frustrated with the use of the filibuster as they have not been able to pass much of the agenda of President Joe Biden such as measures regarding climate change, gun control, and voting rights due to the constant threat of a filibuster.
The tactic of using the filibuster has been used since the beginning of the Senate, although it was not called the “filibuster.” It was referred to as “talking a bill to death,” as it prevented the bill from being passed. The use of this procedure soon became very frequent, especially during the time period of the Civil War, which led to inefficiency and frustration within the Senate. This led to the creation of the cloture in 1917, which allowed the Senate to end debate and vote with a two-thirds majority. However, the filibuster was still used often as the two-thirds majority was difficult to garner in the Senate and was unfortunately used to prevent any civil rights bills like anti-lynching bills. Finally, the major civil rights bill that passed was in 1964, and in 1975, the three-fifths threshold was lowered to a two-thirds majority.
There have also been some changes that have been made recently. In 2013, Democrats changed the filibuster rules so that any nominations for the presidential administration or lower court nominees would only need a majority for the debate to end. In 2017, Republicans made a similar change regarding Supreme Court nominees. Even with some of these adjustments, the filibuster has continued to make the Senate inefficient. According to data from the U.S. Senate website, in 1955-1956, the Senate passed over 2,410 bills. By the 1970s the number of bills passed were below 1,000, and in the most recent 116th Congress, less than 400 bills were passed.
However, even if Democrats want to eliminate the filibuster, it will be extremely difficult as some Senators in their own party are against eliminating the procedure. Moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, a state which leans heavily Republican and Donald Trump won by nearly 40% in the most recent election, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post stating that he will “not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.” Another moderate Democratic Senator, Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, has also said that she is not open to eliminating the filibuster. Not a single Republican Senator has voiced remote support or thought over eliminating the filibuster. Many in support of the filibuster suggest that eliminating it will take away a voice from the minority party, and lead to more partisanship.
Since eliminating the filibuster at this point is a longshot, there have been different ideas that have been brought up to possibly reform the filibuster. Currently, the filibuster can just be invoked by a senator and no actual debate is required. A talking filibuster would require senators to continuously talk for hours to prevent a vote on a bill. Requiring senators to continuously speak could dissuade them from using the filibuster. Another possible reform would be to reduce the threshold for cloture or reduce the number of votes necessary over time.
Although eliminating the filibuster is likely not possible, some of these reforms to the system could prevent it from being misused and hopefully lead to more productivity in Congress.
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