Democratic reform has become a hot topic in the Presidential primary conversation. There are a number of issues and specific policies that fall into this category, none of which has been more embarrassingly confusing to me than eliminating the filibuster.
There’s an episode of The West Wing (S2/Ep 17 – The Stackhouse Filibuster) in which a Senator attempts to hold off a vote by refusing the yield the floor of the Senate. It’s a great episode, but educationally misleading. For the past 20 years, I understood the idea of a filibuster as refusing to yield and speaking for hours on end. I knew it wasn’t totally accurate, but I couldn’t seem to get a clear picture of reality. Quick google searches made me even more confused.
So I did my research, and I hope I have most of this correct.
Filibuster = Refusing to End the Debate
When a bill is brought to the Senate floor for debate (and there’s a whole process before that happens that happens “in committee”), there must be unanimous consent to end the debate and take the bill to a vote. Any one Senator can refuse to consent to end the debate, which places a hold on the bill. This refusal to end the debate is what is known as a filibuster.
It is possible to end a filibuster with cloture. Cloture basically just means ending the debate. In order to get cloture, you must have three fifths (or 60) of the Senators vote to end the filibuster.
So a simple majority vote in the Senate can achieve almost nothing. If you are the majority party and you don’t have the votes to win, just get any Senator to place a hold on the debate. If the opposition doesn’t have at least 60 votes – a supermajority – to break the filibuster, that bill is essentially dead in the water. (Votes for approving federal appointments, other than the Supreme Court, are the exception.)
Is this new? Was the Senate always this useless?
The filibuster and cloture rules aren’t new. In fact, until 1975, a two thirds majority vote was needed to end a filibuster. (It wasn’t until 1917 that there were even any mechanisms at all for ending a protracted debate.)
What IS new is a.) the consistent use of the filibuster as a political tactic, and b.) the way in which the political parties coerce their members to toe the party line. I blame Newt Gingrich, but I’m sure a decent political historian could make an argument for any number of causes. We have reached a point in our political system when the members of the party fall behind the party leadership in lock step, rather than using party and personal values to make an educated decision. While this is a problem on both sides of the aisle, the Republicans do seem to have perfected it. (That makes the announcement by Representative Justin Amash–where he said he believes that the sitting President did commit impeachable offenses–all the more remarkable.)
Should the filibuster end?
The arguments for ending the filibuster seem obvious – we need a Senate who can actually put bills up for a vote.
But is it really that simple?
Let’s be honest, the problem isn’t the filibuster – it’s existed for a couple hundred years. The problem is that a.) corporate and lobbyist money in our political elections make our lawmakers beholden to special interests above their actual constituents, and b.) political machines on the right and the left don’t allow a lot of space for lawmakers to make their own independent decisions.
I am not proposing an answer on this one. The only thing that I am sure about is that I am not yet fully informed on all of the nuances and implications of the filibuster. But if you, like me, didn’t even understand what it was, I hope this helped a little.