• Anna Hickey

Strengthen the Filibuster

As the debate over the filibuster heats up, some senators have stated their refusal to "weaken" the procedure. However, the filibuster is already weak and a harm to our government, so reforms to it are necessary.

The filibuster is an archaic rule that has gotten a lot of attention recently. In the Senate, the filibuster sets a 60 vote threshold to close debate on virtually every bill. This has kept the Senate from passing any meaningful legislation over the past few years. In the 113th Congress, there were a record number of filibusters for a two year period: 218. In the 115th Congress, there were 168 filibusters and only 52 recorded votes. It has been decades since any meaningful immgration, climate change, or infrastructure laws have been passed. This situation is untenable, especially for a country facing crumbling infrastructure, an affordable housing crisis, and a climate crisis.


Support for abolishing the filibuster has increased over the past few years, but Senate democrats are unlikely to convince Senators Manchin and Sinema to do so. Both have released strongly worded messages that they support the filibuster because it encourages a bipartisan work relationship. This is not supported by the facts. In fact, the filibuster has decreased bipartisanship due to its high bar of passing bills into law. Instead of the party in majority working to convince a handful of opposing party members, they have to convince at least 10 (in current Congressional party makeup) to get literally anything done.


If for whatever reason Senators Sinema and Mancin refuse to abolish the filibuster, they should get on board with strengthening it. The filibuster has lost its strength and power in recent years. Instead of forcing politicians to take the floor and vocally defend their ideas in person, the filibuster allows politicians to hide. Senate democrats should strengthen the filibuster through one of two options. Currently, any senator can filibuster a bill until three-fifths of the senators vote to close debate and proceed to a final vote. They do not have to speak on the floor. They just have to say they are going to filibuster a bill, and, unless there are 60 votes to close debate, bills that would be filibustered rarely make it to the floor. To strengthen the filibuster and force action in the Senate, the rule should be changed to put the onus on the Senators who want to keep debate open. Starting a filibuster should require 60 affirmative votes instead of 60 votes being required to break a filibuster. This would force would-be filibusterers to get votes from both the opposition and the senators who support a bill but want more debate time. It would actually foster more bipartisanship.


If the Senate does not want to do that, they should revoke the 2-track system established in 1970 and force senators who are filibustering a bill to put a halt to all Senate activities. The two track system, established in 1970, allowed senators to filibuster a bill without having to take the floor and stop all work in the Senate. By returning to the pre-1970 system, ths would force Senators to choose between filibustering a bill or funding the government. The two track system let the filibuster be politically easier for the minority party to sustain, but it shouldn’t be easy to sustain. The filibuster should be a powerful tool that comes at a cost to force the media and political establishment to pay attention to an issue. If a senator thinks that a bill should not pass and wants to filibuster it, they should have to defend their filibuster.


In his Washington Post op-ed, Sen. Joe Manchin said he would refuse to weaken or abolish the filibuster. The filibuster is already weak; it needs to be strengthened if it is going to continue. The American people deserve a government that works and passes bills, politicians that take votes to improve their lives, and an ability to hold their politicians accountable for their actions. These days, no action is being taken, and, much like muscles atrophying without use, the Senate lawmaking process has become weak and almost useless. That needs to change.


Anna Hickey is a third-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. She is Editor-in-Chief for the American Agora.


Images courtesy Speaker Boehner, Creative Commons


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