What’s Left: Senate Democrats Must Move to Abolish the Filibuster

On March 11, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law. The bill provides $1.9 trillion for individual stimulus payments as well as money for vaccine distribution, unemployment insurance and aid to state and local governments. The bill was passed without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate, using a process known as budget reconciliation to avoid the filibuster and ensuing deadlock. Despite this fraught process, upwards of 70% of Americans support the bill including 41% of republicans, according to polling from the Pew Research Center. 

Why is it so difficult for the Senate to pass legislation that is overwhelmingly popular into law? The answer is the filibuster. 

The story of the American Rescue Plan is just one example of the critical roadblock the filibuster represents to an effectively functioning Senate. With only slim majorities in both chambers and control of the White House, Democrats increasingly must rely on loopholes like the reconciliation process to avoid complete obstruction of their policy priorities by Senate Republicans. There is a limited window to boost the economy and fulfill their campaign promises and so the time has come for Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster and pave the way for the Senate to actually legislate again.

The filibuster is both an old and new phenomenon, and some of the strongest arguments for its abolition come from looking at its history. Proponents of the filibuster claim that doing away with the process would disrupt critical Senate norms and rules that protect minority rights. However, this perspective ignores the fact that the filibuster is not required by the Constitution or included in the original rules of the Senate at all. The filibuster actually originated as a feature of House procedure before being abolished in the chamber’s rules in 1841. In contrast, early Senate rules were based almost entirely on simple majority rule, and this principle guided Senate procedure even after the filibuster was introduced there in 1806. During this early period of American history, the use of the filibuster was rare. This changed in the second half of the 20th century when the filibuster was increasingly used by both parties to block legislation, especially around civil rights.

Beginning in 1922, southern segregationists used the filibuster many times to block the passage of anti-lynching legislation. This obstruction proved so effective that the Senate passed no anti-lynching legislation until 2018. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond still holds the record of the longest filibuster — 24 hours and 18 minutes — for his speech in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act. In 1964, another filibuster held up the Senate for 54 days before failing to stop the passage of the Civil Rights Act. These instances illustrate the true purpose behind the revival of the filibuster — maintenance of the status quo at the expense of social justice and civil rights. 

Some suggest reforming the filibuster, instead of abolishing it. This approach also ignores the fact that the filibuster has actually changed significantly over time. Since 1917, the Senate has decreased the number of senators needed to end debate from 67 to 60 and moved to limit the filibuster to exclude votes on executive appointments and spending bills. Most recently in 2017, the Senate voted to eliminate the filibuster for nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, paving the way for the appointments of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanagh and Amy Coney Barrett. In short, there is nothing sacred about the filibuster, and its power is already shrinking in the Senate. It has been modified time and time again to allow smooth passage of specific political priorities. 

However, it is important to consider how past attempts at reform have sometimes bolstered the power of the filibuster. In 1972, a set of reforms meant to discourage obstructionism allowed the Senate to continue with its daily business while a filibuster was underway. Today, senators do not have to continuously speak to hold the floor and prevent a vote. Even the threat of a filibuster has the power to grind the Senate to a halt. Filibustering has become entirely costless and increasingly routine. Simply reforming the rules again will not be enough.

It is now time to eliminate the filibuster so that all kinds of legislation — not just spending bills but voting rights bills and civil rights bills and gun control bills — can get their fair vote in the Senate. Doing so will not only help free the Senate from its partisan gridlock and allow for new Democratic majorities to deliver on their promises to the American people, but it will also be a step in the right direction towards dismantling tools of white supremacy in our government procedures. The filibuster has been changed before. We must now rid our system of its toxic influence forever.