Why the filibuster is the stupidest U.S. Senate rule
Do you really know the deal with the filibuster? On Jan. 19, the Senate voted to keep current filibuster rules 48-52, basically following party lines with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) voting along with Republicans. Senate Democrats were looking to change filibuster rules in the Senate to pass voting rights legislation and other important legislation that would have huge impacts for the American public.
This vote to keep current filibuster rules in essence killed any chance these bills will ever pass the senate. So, what does filibuster really mean? What does it actually do? When I tell you the ins and outs of this rule, you’ll probably agree with me on its stupidity.
Before we dig into the filibuster, we first need to have a history lesson. When the founding fathers developed the plan for the senate, they developed a four-step process for passing the bill. Step one was a bill was brought to the Senate floor. Step two, senators debate on said bill. Step three, senators hold a vote to end debate. Step four, senators vote on the actual bill with a simple majority (half of the total members plus one) needed to pass the bill.
This was the process that senators followed from the creation of the senate until 1806. That all changed because of Aaron Burr. If you are unfamiliar with Burr, he was originally elected as a senator from the state of New York and served one six-year term. However, he is more famously known as the third vice-president of the United States. If you’re familiar with the musical Hamilton, you’ll also know that Burr was the one who killed Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel.
Well, back to the filibuster. During his time as vice-president, he thought the senate had too many rules that dictated how the chamber should operate. He encouraged senators to scrap various rules that he thought of as redundant, one of those being the rule to have a vote to end debate on a bill. In 1806, after Burr had left office, the senate pulled the trigger and got rid of the rule. This meant that, in theory, because any senator could no longer call for a vote to end debate, debate on a bill could go on forever.
This rule change didn’t really affect any proceedings until 1837. In 1837, as calls for the ending of slavery began, South Carolina Senator John Calhoun, a southern senator who supported slavery, exploited this rule change to prevent any bills aiming to end slavery from passing by never allowing debate to end, or what is now commonly referred to as filibustering.
Various senators exploited this loophole, locking the senate in extreme gridlock. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson pressured the Senate to pass a rule that would prevent further filibustering so the senate could actually get something done. Oh, if only he were able to see what came of that.
The senate took Wilson’s advice and passed Rule 22, which is sometimes referred to as the cloture vote rule. Rule 22 reinstated the vote to end debate, similar to the rule that the senate threw out in 1806, but there was a catch. Unlike the previous rule, Rule 22 required a super-majority, or two-thirds of the senate, to vote to end debate. So, now senators had to go through two votes. One that required a super-majority to end debate and one that required a simple majority to actually pass the bill.
That’s where you start to see the stupidity of Rule 22 or what we now refer to as the filibuster. The biggest reason why Rule 22 is so stupid is that senators never have to go on the record saying they don’t support legislation that often centers around civil rights and other important issues for the American public as a whole.
After the passage of Rule 22 in 1917, southern senators used the rule to block any type of civil rights legislation from coming to a vote on the floor. One of the most famous examples from those first years of the rule was anti-lynching legislation, which would make kidnapping and hanging Black people from a tree illegal. What an outrageous thing to do right? Well to make you even more sick to your stomach, the bill was filibustered for over 100 years and is still not law today.
This rule was continuously used to block civil rights legislation of any kind during the civil rights era. During this time, the filibuster was really only used to block civil rights legislation. Today, however, the filibuster is being used more than ever on a variety of different bills. In 2020 alone, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and in turn the entire Republican Party in the Senate, has used the filibuster to block 263 bills from coming to a vote on the floor.
There are numerous bills that are currently being filibustered that would have a huge impact on the American public and the future of this country. Being that the filibuster was used 263 times in 2020 alone, I won’t be able to tell you all of them. But I am going to bring to your attention what bill currently being filibustered that I think is the most important and pressing for the future of democracy in this country.
That bill is H.R. 1, or what is commonly referred to as the “For the People Act”. This bill would basically completely overhaul our elections in this country, in the best possible way. Some of the biggest provisions of the bill are increasing the access to vote for American citizens, minimizing partisan gerrymandering, increasing the security and integrity of elections on all levels not just federally and expands the code of ethics that each branch of government is required to follow. These are all incredibly important things for our country. However, Republicans in the senate are hell-bent on making sure that it never passes. Why is this you might ask, because if it were to pass it would threaten Republicans’ power in both state and federal government.
H.R. 1 would remove various obstacles that disproportionally affect minority communities, who on average tend to lean left and vote for Democrats. Republicans have used legislation to prevent these communities from voting by adding so many obstacles to voting that these communities don’t vote rather than jumping through all the hoops these legislators make for them.
Currently, Republicans have majority power in 30 state legislatures, compared to Democrats only having majority power in 18 states. After the record turnout of Democratic voters in the 2020 election, numerous Republican-controlled state legislatures passed bills that make it even harder for some people to vote, which disproportionately affects minority voters. This is a HUGE problem. By not giving every American the right to vote, and not just vote but making it easy for citizens to vote, the make-up of our government will never truly reflect the American public.
Until the filibuster rule is scrapped and replaced with a rule that makes sense, like requiring a simple majority to both end debate and pass a bill, American democracy will be able to be controlled by a minority of senators. This is a problem that will have more and more impacts as time goes on. My greatest fear is that after all of the anti-voting legislation that was passed by state governments, Democrats will lose the Senate and House in the midterm elections and any hope for these bills to pass will be lost forever.
So, call your senators, pressure them to do something to protect your right to vote. Because that is really what is at stake here. This isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem; this is an American problem. Until Rule 22 is scraped from senate rules American democracy is in the hands of people that don’t want you a part of it.