Does the Filibuster Benefit Our Government?

In 1806, the US Senate Filibuster was accidentally introduced as a way to require more than just a simple majority to end debate. To end debate on a topic once a filibuster has been enacted, there needs to be 60 votes in favor of ending debate, rather than a simple majority of 50 votes. Over the years, the rules of the filibuster have changed from what began as just a rarely implemented tradition to a Senate rule that can have the power to prevent a popular piece of legislation from being voted on. Today, the filibuster is generally used by a minority group in the Senate in hopes that by delaying a vote the vote on that piece of legislation won’t happen, and subsequently the piece of legislation won’t pass. 

Famously, the filibuster was used by Strom Thurmond to prevent the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He stood in front of the Senate for over 24 hours reading everything from voting laws to George Washington’s Farewell Address. While the Civil Rights Act was popular among a majority of the US Senate, Strom Thurmond’s filibuster was able to delay a vote on a piece of legislation. And although this particular piece of legislation was able to overcome the filibuster, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was held up for 60 days due to a minority of Southern Democrats. Over the last 70 years, the filibuster has made it nearly impossible to pass any piece of controversial legislation; from 1957-1957 25% of bills passed into law, while now, only 2.8% of bills introduced pass into law. 

The design of the filibuster is in line with the “separation of powers” that the Founding Fathers set out to create; to protect against tyranny and hyper partisan laws, it should be hard to pass a bill. But the filibuster isn’t in the Constitution and it wasn’t implemented to be part of the separation of powers. After all, it is an old Senate rule that began to be exploited 150 years after it was created. In reality, the filibuster makes it so a bill that should be decided on a simple majority (50 out of 100 votes) is forced to have a supermajority (60 out of 100 votes). This creates excessive gridlock that allows a minority opinion to prevail over the majority opinion. 

The filibuster has become political. The political party that is in the majority in the Senate is against the filibuster, and the political party that is in the minority is in favor of keeping the filibuster. Both sides will try to use “Constitutional arguments” or “separation of powers” to justify their stance at the moment, but it is purely a game of political power. The majority party in the Senate has repeatedly tried to change the Senate rules to either reduce the power of the filibuster or take away the filibuster. Most recently, in January 2022, Senate Democrats tried to change the rules of the Senate so that a voting rights bill would be able to pass without being filibustered. The attempt to change the Senate rules failed and the voting rights bill failed with it. 

The filibuster has produced some funny moments. Alfonse D’Amato once read a Washington D.C. phone book for hours. But, in the end, the filibuster promotes gridlock and minority opinions, and to bolster progress, the filibuster should be repealed.