Killing America's Favorite Policy Pirate: The Filibuster

The United States Senate: a pinnacle of global democracy. These 100 senators are some of the most influential lawmakers anywhere on Earth. But let's be honest: the Senate, unlike the numerous more reasonable law-making bodies across the world, never seems to get much done. Headlines like “Senate in partisan deadlock over spending bill,” and “Government shutdown imminent as majority leader Mitch McConnell decides to go shuffleboarding instead of negotiating” are all we hear about on the news. While this trend can be blamed on many things, including the fact that elected officials in the U.S. have an unreasonable obsession with golf, the Senate’s ability to filibuster bills is definitely a contributing factor. The filibuster, a provision by which Senators can stall a vote on any given bill almost indefinitely, is counterproductive in every way imaginable.

We have no legal obligation to keep the filibuster around: it isn’t even in the Constitution. To provide some context, the filibuster was instituted in 1806 by then-Vice President Aaron Burr (yes, that Aaron Burr). Fresh off being indicted for the murder of Alexander Hamilton, Burr sought to clean up the mess that was the Senate rule book. Among other ideas, he urged the Senate to get rid of the previous question motion, the ability of the majority to shoot down a debate on a bill by vote. The Senate agreed, thinking that no harm could come of getting rid of this “trivial” rule. Thus, the ability to filibuster any bill presented at any point in time was created—accidentally.One of the main arguments for keeping the filibuster is to retain a strong system of checks and balances. There’s nothing wrong with this sentiment, but filibustering doesn’t contribute much to the current system. As we all learned in elementary school, the branches of the government exercise powers over each other to prevent any one branch from becoming overly dominant. The executive branch can veto legislation passed by the legislative branch, and the legislative branch can in turn impeach the president if he or she is deemed unfit to serve, for example. Not to mention the fact that the legislative branch itself is split into two different bodies to prevent power grabs. These regulations on the powers of the branches were put in the Constitution because they are foundational aspects of the American government. The ability to filibuster a bill is not in the Constitution for a reason: it’s completely redundant.

Some also argue that the filibuster helps regulate the majority party. In other words, by giving the minority a means to stall a majority vote, the Senate remains a balanced body. This idea, however, undermines the very purpose of democracy. The majority is the majority for a reason: the American people voted them in.

The Senate doesn’t need another excuse for its chronic inability to get things done. It makes no sense to allow 40 senators the ability to stall the Senate indefinitely, especially when the Senate is already considered a minoritarian body. In a Senate where California, a state with a population greater than that of the smallest 21 states combined, has the same number of votes as Oregon, the argument that getting rid of the filibuster would singularly jeopardize the voice of the minority is extremely flawed. Quite frankly, this “Jim Crow relic” (a term used by former President Obama referring to the use of the filibuster in attempting to block multiple civil rights bills) silences the voice of the people, favoring the voice of cornfields instead.

Historically speaking, filibuster speeches have been insanely long, on insanely boring topics, and often, were completely pointless. For example, in 1953, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon spoke for 22 hours and 26 minutes regarding the Tidelands Oil bill. I’m sure his address was as riveting as the prospect of a day-long speech about an oil bill sounds. Eager to break Morse’s record, on August 28, 1957, the very uniquely-named Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina began filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 at 8:54 PM. He concluded his speech at 9:12 PM the next day. Among other historical documents, Thurmond recited the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and Washington’s farewell address. Both bills passed with bipartisan support regardless of their efforts. As if those two instances weren’t silly enough, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin filibustered a bill that would have increased the national debt for 16 hours and 12 minutes in 1981. Unfortunately for him, the validity of his argument was lost, as taxpayers ended up paying thousands of dollars keeping the chamber open all night for his speech.

Extreme bipartisanship and new policy have now made the filibuster a routine presence in politics; a minority party doesn’t even need to physically stall the chamber with a speech anymore: they can stop legislation in its tracks with the very threat of one. If anything, the filibuster has only gotten more absurd over time. There is no valid reason for why this measure should still exist. It doesn’t contribute much to the system of checks and balances, it keeps the Senate from getting things done, and it has led to some of the most ridiculous speeches we’ve ever seen. From the outset, the main goal of the U.S. Senate was to carry out the will of the American people in the most reasonable manner possible, and the filibuster gets in the way of this objective. The founders intended the Senate to be a dish upon which the hot tea of legislation cools, but the filibuster provides an avenue through which that tea (the common will of the American people) can be thrown away entirely.

The obvious solution? Get rid of it. By improving the way politics in America work and attempting to blur the harsh partisan lines that currently divide our nation, we can work towards goals that truly benefit the American people—including removing the filibuster.

But hey, the Senate might just threaten to filibuster that too.


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