The Senate Filibuster

What's happening?

Against the backdrop of a truly chaotic week in policymaking in which three versions of Republican health care plans failed, President Trump fired his chief of staff and may have banned transgendered people from serving in the military, and the new White House communications director gave a—um—colorful interview, one important debate understandably didn't get the attention it needs. 


President Trump wants to get rid of the Senate filibuster.

Why is it important?

A piece of legislation or a confirmation only needs more than half of the Senate to pass (usually 51 Senators). But Senators are allowed to extend the debate before a vote indefinitely, unless two-thirds of the Senate (usually 60 Senators) votes to end it. The act of delaying a vote indefinitely in order to slow or stop it is called a filibuster.


In other words, you only need 51 votes for a Senate decision, but you need 60 votes to get to decide at all. 


Since the 1840s, when the filibuster began to evolve into a more powerful legislative tool, both parties have threatened to abolish it. We call this the "nuclear option." The nuclear option is a problem and a solution for both parties at different times—both benefit from filibuster rules when they are a minority in the Senate, and both benefit from the way 60 votes requires the Senate to be a generally moderate, consensus-seeking body.

Debate it!

Should the Senate get rid of the filibuster?


Removing the filibuster would be a catastrophic rule change that would unleash President Trump's legislative agenda and, much worse, change the deliberative way the Senate is required to make decisions.


We have a body of government that is not bound to these "archaic" filibuster rules: the House. The structure of Congress and the procedural rules of the House and Senate differentiate between the two of them—and that's a good thing. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is right: removing the filibuster would “fundamentally change the way the Senate has worked for a very long time. We're not going to do that.” 


Luckily, a majority of Senators agrees. As The Hill reported, "sixty-one senators sent a letter to McConnell and Schumer last month urging them to preserve the legislative filibuster last month." Why? Because it would remove the forcing mechanism for the kind of "full, robust and extended debate" that the good legislating requires.


If you oppose President Trump—or even on any level have concerns about an uninhibited legislative agenda led by this administration—you should strongly object to this change. While it's true that GOP health care bills died on the hill of 51 votes, that rushed and chaotic process was an effort to avoid the 60 vote requirement by using budget reconciliation, which only needs 51. That all goes away without the filibuster. As a country, we simply can't afford that.


The filibuster is an archaic rule that has hampered good governance for far too long.


Effective legislating isn't something to be feared. Conservatives should welcome this opportunity to demonstrate their capacity to govern. Liberals should recognize that the filibuster gives conservatives a structural advantage by creating roadblocks to enacting new laws. As Matt Yglesias argued, "it's no coincidence that the United States is also an outlier in terms of having a relatively underdeveloped welfare state. The many sticking points in the legislative process were deliberately designed by the Founders to bias the political system in favor of conservatism."


The filibuster biases the legislative process toward the status quo, making it harder to enact new rules that would move the United States further toward the kind of infrastructure and welfare systems that define other developed democracies.


Though this debate has come up throughout American history, it is more important now than ever. The filibuster has morphed into a monster. The dramatic "talking" filibusters of the 1950s, which required Senators to actually debate in order to delay a bill, have given way to the "silent" filibuster, which requires only the threat of delay. With no limitation from physical stamina, the filibuster has become an unreasonable burden on legislating. It's time to abolish it.

Learn more...

  1. A brief history of the filibuster
    • "The record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina's J. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957."
  2. President Trump's comments on the subject
    • "If Republicans are going to pass great future legislation in the Senate, they must immediately go to a 51 vote majority, not senseless 60... Even though parts of healthcare could pass at 51, some really good things need 60. So many great future bills & budgets need 60 votes."
  3. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's defense of the filibuster
    • "Who would be the biggest beneficiary of that right now? It would be the majority, right? There’s not a single senator in the majority who thinks we ought to change the legislative filibuster. Not one."