When President Joe Biden reached the White House in January, he brought with him a long list of goals for his time in office. Among these goals were plans to tackle climate change, strengthen the Affordable Care Act, and improve the nation’s infrastructure. Some of his aims can be accomplished through executive order–and Biden has already signed over 30 of these. However, to make more lasting policy changes, Biden will need to work with Democrats in Congress to pass legislation, and that’s where progressive reform becomes a lot more difficult and uncertain.
Though Democrats currently represent the majority in both the House and the Senate, they will undoubtedly struggle to accomplish their goals as long as the Republican minority can use the filibuster to kill progressive legislation. With the help of the filibuster, which has long been the bane of liberal policymakers, Senate Republicans will be able to stall and block the kind of comprehensive and progressive bills that are necessary for tackling the most pressing issues of our time.
So what exactly is the filibuster, and what is its function in the Senate?
According to The Nation, the term “filibuster” generally refers to the ability of any senator to block or delay a vote on a piece of legislation. However, the issue that is currently under debate (and has been so for decades and decades) actually revolves around the rules of cloture. According to Policy 2020, a project of the Brookings Institution, the current Senate cloture rule requires 60 senators to end debate on a bill and move to a vote. Obviously, the divisive political atmosphere and extreme partisanship these days mean that it is often difficult to get 60 senators to agree to vote on a bill.
Some Americans might hold the misconception that because the Senate is supposed to be the slower-moving and more deliberate body in Congress, the founding fathers created the filibuster as part of their vision for the Senate. That isn’t the case. According to hearings before the Senate Rules Committee in 2010, rules for the House and the Senate in 1789 were nearly identical. The majority in both chambers could cut off debate when it was ready to vote on a piece of legislation. The House of Representatives still largely functions that way today.
The Senate, however, changed its rules in 1806 on the advice of Vice President Aaron Burr and sowed the seeds for what has become the modern-day filibuster. Still, it was not until the mid-20th century that the filibuster became a commonly used tool weaponized by the minority party to block legislation presented by the majority.
According to Indivisible, a liberal nonprofit organization, the filibuster has been instrumental in the last century in delaying progressive projects like gun control reform and civil rights legislation or blocking them altogether. And as Policy 2020’s breakdown of the Senate cloture rule explains, the use of the rule has skyrocketed in the last two decades, with more cloture motions filed since the start of the 21st century than in the prior 80 years.
In 2013, for example, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced legislation meant to enact common-sense gun control reform in the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The bill, which required background checks for private gun purchases, had bipartisan support and was widely popular with Americans. (Based on the most recent polling gathered by Politifact, at least 80 percent of Americans support universal background checks.) However, the bill died in the Senate, even though a simple majority of 54 senators (from both parties) had expressed support for it. The minority of senators who did not support the bill were able to block it with the power of the filibuster.
The problem with the filibuster is clear: even bills with bipartisan support can fail to become law if it remains in place. The filibuster keeps urgent policies, like those meant to combat gun violence, racial injustices, and climate change, from ever being able to pass. It is unbelievably frustrating that even reforms that are widely endorsed by Americans can be so easily blocked by a small group of senators. This simply cannot continue.
So why are so many senators hesitant to abolish the filibuster? As an article from Vox states, “They are caught between the responsibility they feel to the voters and the responsibility they feel to the institution.” While abolishing the filibuster would mean the Democratic majority in the Senate would be able to push through legislation far more easily, many fear a future in which Republicans wrestle back control of the Senate and are able to pass legislation of their own. It’s a decision between acting now and accomplishing their goals in the present and keeping the filibuster in place in the hope that it can hamper Republicans in the future. Both parties have benefited at times from the existence of the filibuster, but both parties have also been frustrated and defeated by it as well.
But it is time for Senate Democrats to take a much firmer stance on the issue. They owe this to the American people, many of whom have suffered greatly over the last year due to the economic recession caused by the pandemic and from continued natural disasters brought on by climate change. These Senate Democrats now have two years to do everything in their power to weaken the tyrannical control of the Senate Republican minority by finally reforming the senate cloture rule and escaping the vice-like grip of the filibuster.
If they fail to act, they lose the chance to make a real difference in the lives of their constituents. They lose the chance to protect future Americans from the devastating effects of global climate change. They lose the chance to strengthen voting rights in the country to protect marginalized groups. They lose the chance to raise the federal minimum wage, pass common-sense gun reform, and enact federal reforms to the nation’s police departments. The American people are tired of the inaction and lethargy the filibuster has brought on in the Senate. They need to see their Senators do what is necessary to ensure that the halls of Congress become a place where real change can be made, not where bills meant to improve lives go to die.
Abolish the filibuster. It’s what’s right for our country.