When you hear the word filibuster, what do you think of? Is it a single senator, holding the floor by talking for hours on end, like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Well, in today’s Senate, it’s actually much easier and less dramatic than that to kill any bill using the filibuster.
Any senator can delay a final vote on a bill indefinitely by invoking the filibuster and voting to prevent debate from ending. Unless 60 senators vote for “cloture,” ending debate on a bill, debate continues indefinitely, preventing the bill from ever coming to the floor for a final vote.
Using the filibuster, 40 senators out of 100 can effectively block any piece of legislation.
In practice, that means conservative senators representing less than 25% of the entire U.S. population wield enormous power. They regularly use this power to stop whatever legislation they don’t like. Even proposed bills with majority support in the Senate have been shot down, all because of the filibuster.
Despite its now-ubiquitous hold on U.S. politics, the filibuster was not written into the Constitution and it would only take a simple majority vote to abolish it entirely. Here’s why that matters.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
The filibuster has been used to block everything from gun safety laws, civil rights and voter protection legislation, pro-immigrant bills like the DREAM Act, climate change action, and more.
If the filibuster continues, conservative senators will use it to block any and all future progressive agendas, grinding the Senate to a halt, and ignoring what the American people put them in office to do: govern.
Even if Donald Trump loses in November and Democrats flip the Senate, a progressive agenda will not pass without ending the filibuster. The fix is simple: a majority vote in the Senate will abolish the filibuster. In order to make that happen, we need to create the political pressure now to get it done.
Ending the filibuster must be on the agenda of whoever becomes our next president. They can’t be successful if a minority of senators representing a small fraction of the country can block any chance of meaningful progress.
The best way we can begin to make this a reality is by giving the issue national visibility now. Share this explainer with your friends and family on social media.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FILIBUSTER
Until the beginning of the 20th century, senators had the right to unlimited debate, meaning any senator could argue on any bill for as long as they saw fit. 1917 put an end to that tradition with Rule 22 (also known as cloture), which allowed a two-thirds majority vote to end debate.
However, even with cloture ending unlimited debate, the filibuster is another effective means to block legislation, since a two-thirds vote was and still is difficult to obtain. In the early 1970’s, the Senate changed its rules to permit more than one bill to be pending on the Senate floor simultaneously. This change made the non-talking filibuster we most commonly see today possible.
In 1975, after southern senators deployed filibusters throughout the 1960s in an attempt to block crucial civil rights legislation, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of the current 100 senators.