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An Affront to Democracy: Why We Need to Abolish the Filibuster

November 20, 2011

What exactly is the Filibuster?

When looking at the current political environment of the Federal Government of the United States, one of the most important political processes governing legislative action is the filibuster. With regards to the US Senate, the term filibuster is typically used to describe the political act of delaying a vote on a particular measure by extending debate indefinitely. Senate rules currently allow one or more senators to extend debate by speaking for as long as they desire unless a three-fifths majority invokes a motion of cloture. This majority is commonly referred to in modern politics as a ‘supermajority.’


Origins of the Filibuster

It must be understood that the right to filibuster is discussed neither in the US Constitution itself nor in any of the Amendments. The tactic’s existence is originally due to the abolishment of an early rule in the US Senate that allowed Senators to close debate on an issue, allowing for a vote. When the rule was abolished, no procedural rule for closing debate was developed to replace it, and so the concept of the filibuster was born. The first procedural rules providing for cloture were not even established until the early 20th century, and they initially required a two-thirds majority to override the filibuster.


Rise of the Filibuster: Historical Context

Until recent times, use of the filibuster had generally been reserved for measures that were particularly controversial. Historically speaking, the filibuster was used by obstructionist minority parties as a last-ditch effort to kill legislation. In very early use, the filibuster was widely regarded as misuse of the senate rules allowing for unlimited debate, and, as such, was used sparingly; in the entirety of the 19th century, the filibuster was used fewer than two dozen times (NYTimes). The filibuster continued to be used relatively sparingly through the first half of the 20th century, but increasingly divisive politics in the 1960’s and 1970’s spurred unprecedented increases in its use, largely due to divisions over Civil Rights legislation. Revisions to Senate rules in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s decreased the number of senators required to invoke cloture from 67 to 60, but, as a result of those same revisions, the filibuster became easier to invoke and maintain for the minority party. The chart below, showing motions and votes for cloture over time, makes the effects of these reforms clear.


The chart reveals how the filibuster truly came to fruition as a political tactic between the Nixon and Reagan administrations, which saw its frequency increase to an average of about 20 times per year. In the 1993-94 legislative session, the 103rd Congress saw the filibuster used 32 times. By the 110th congress, however, the filibuster was used a staggering 112 times (NYTimes), highlighting the partisan divisions that have exacerbated the initial problem posed by the filibuster’s existence. Recent abuse of the filibuster dictates that we reconsider its continued use.

Is the Filibuster Antidemocratic?

So what is it that makes the filibuster an “anti-democratic” political obstacle? In order to understand the democratically disproportionate impact of the filibuster on policymaking, we must look into the representative nature of the United States Senate itself. Under the US Constitution, each state is afforded two senators, regardless of state population, and the manner of appointing the senators was left to the states. Using general elections as a manner of appointing senators did not come into general practice until later. Under the current senate rules, a filibuster can be upheld by as few as 41 senators, but if those senators come from the least-populated states, it is possible for them to represent as little as 12.3% of the national population, whereas the state of California alone represents 12% of the national population. By that logic, the remaining 59 senators, an insufficient number to invoke cloture, could represent as much as 87.7% of the national population. The diagram below clearly illustrates the problem. If this does not convince you that the filibuster is an affront to democracy, I don’t know what will.

Why Do We Still Have It?

The main obstacles to the elimination the filibuster can be found in the potential political repercussions. Recent politics have seen the act of abolishing the filibuster referred to as the “nuclear option,” and any majority party with the desire to eliminate the procedure will be wary of the ramifications of such action should they lose the majority in the Senate. Furthermore, any such action will be widely branded as a bitter insult by the opposition party, and will be seized on as evidence that the majority is tarnishing the hypothetical ideal of bipartisan politics. The minority party would likely paint these efforts as paving the way for the infamous ‘tyranny of the majority.’

Closing Thoughts

In truth, however, putting an end to the filibuster in the Senate will merely put an end to tyranny of the minority. The manner in which seats in the Senate itself are apportioned already provides an adequate defense from tyranny of the majority, and the filibuster is an unintended tool that allows partisan minorities to prevent the democratically elected majorities from enacting policies they were elected to enact. In a majoritarian democracy, this is unacceptable. The filibuster is an antidemocratic political tool that is put to use far too often in the already-polarized and debatably undemocratic institution United States Senate. It is time for us to put this era of political obstructionism to an end.


From → Democracy, Politics

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