Opinion | The filibuster stands in the way of justice and democracy

Alex Jobin, Staff Columnist

Since 2020, the U.S. Senate has narrowly favored the Democratic Party, which effectively holds a 51-50 majority by way of independents who caucus with Democrats and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. 

This might leave some voters wondering why relatively little headway has been made on the Democratic legislative agenda in the past few years Outside of traditional issues of government gridlock and Sen. Joe Manchin’s penchant for screwing over Democrats to uphold austerity measures, there is one massive culprit, America’s very own legislative bogeyman: the filibuster.

The filibuster, in short, is a way to cease the passage of legislation which would traditionally pass the Senate with a simple 51-vote majority by prolonging debate on the bill until it dies on the floor. This works, because a “cloture” vote — one which must be reached to end debate in the Senate — has a higher threshold of 60 votes. 

In our recent era of highly-contested and strongly polarized politics, the filibuster has become an unfortunate mainstay in the minority party’s political arsenal. It is time to do away with it.

Do a quick “ctrl + f” on our nation’s founding document, the Constitution, and you will notice that the word “filibuster” is nowhere to be found. Indeed, it is an issue which early members of our government explicitly discouraged. Alexander Hamilton called it “a poison” and the Senate even once held the same “previous question” rule as the House which acts as a means to end debate.

However, that “previous question” rule was used so infrequently by our early senators that it was removed from the Senate’s rulebook in 1806, clearly without the foresight that it would later become the longest strand of hair clogging our government’s metaphorical shower drain.

Since then, the “previous question” rule has not returned, and the filibuster, which comes from the Dutch word for “pirate,” according to a 2021 historical review by National Geographic, has gone on to block,  or at least slow, the passage of what could have been, and in some cases became, some of the most progressive and influential legislation in our nation’s history. This is true even after the cloture rule was established in 1919.

The filibuster’s modern prominence originated in white supremacy, as Southern senators intent on maintaining both de jure and de facto segregation during the Jim Crow era. They successfully used the tactic to block bills which would have criminalized lynching and eliminated poll taxes which dissuaded Black political participation. The longest continuous filibuster in American history was performed by Sen. Strom Thurmond in a failed attempt to defeat the Civil Rights Act of 1957; the cloture threshold was lowered from two-thirds to three-fifths in the same year.

At least in 1957, Thurmond had to actually stand on the Senate floor and talk for over 24 hours; today, the filibuster does not require such an effort. We now live in the era of the “stealth filibuster,”  a filibuster so scary that the mere mention of its name sends lawmakers fleeing down the Capitol’s halls. All a senator must do in the modern era to frustrate their political opponents is declare the intention to filibuster, effectively raising the intended simple majority vote of 51 to that 60-vote threshold on any and every piece of legislation which wishes to pass the Senate. 

As recently as 2021, the filibuster has prevented the passage of democrats’ voting rights bill, S.1, which would protect absentee and mail-in ballots, improve national voter registration and counter the other funny-but-malicious word which continues to plague our democratic process:  gerrymandering. 

The absurdity of the filibuster is obvious. It has led Senators to do everything from reading oyster recipes to reciting Dr. Seuss in what is supposed to be one of our nation’s most prestigious and important institutions, all in the name of gridlock. 

There is a reason that the history of the filibuster is tied to blockage of voting reform; it is a weapon molded from anti-democratic intent and cured in racism. If the American people have elected a party into the Senate majority, then they expect results and wish to see their agenda accomplished. The filibuster is the antithesis to this, and only acts to further separate our legislators from the mandate of the people. 

It should not be controversial to say that without democracy, there can be no justice. If we do not work to protect the equal rights guaranteed to all of us by our most sacred laws and documents, then we fail to ensure that we will all be afforded fair and just treatment under those laws. It is in that spirit that the filibuster must be repealed, whether through the reestablishment of a “previous question” rule or through a lowering of the cloture vote threshold to a simple majority.  

Unfortunately, many senators wish to keep this archaic relic intact in order to preserve their own individual power. Republicans have been consistently losing popular support for years, and the abolition of the filibuster threatens to deprive their inequitable hold on power even further. 

It would eliminate their stranglehold on progressive legislation in the Senate and also allow for the passage of S.1, thereby snuffing out the gerrymandering tactic which has worked to prop up Republicans in districts they may not have otherwise controlled. 

Some Democrats have also been staunch supporters of the filibuster, perhaps most notably the aforementioned Manchin. Manchin has used the single-vote advantage which Democrats have in the Senate to his own personal advantage, holding massive pieces of legislation hostage for the purposes of gaining political clout, appeasing his corporate donors, and ensuring provisions which would personally benefit him and the capitalist interests of his family members.

Part of Manchin’s role as thorn in the Biden administration’s side has been the blocking of filibuster reform — reform which would minimize a spoiler like himself’s ability to abuse power and clog legislative efficiency. Of course, Manchin, like others, has concealed his true motives behind claims of necessary “checks and balances,” when in actuality he is only interested in his checkbook and the balance on his bank statement. 

Recently, Manchin was seen high-fiving fellow Senator Kyrsten Sinema — formerly a Democrat, but now an independent — in jubilee over their opposition to filibuster reform. Sinema has also acted as a regular roadblock to legislative action and has grown highly unpopular in her own state of Arizona. 

But no matter your political leaning, you as the voter, should welcome the death of the filibuster. If you value your ability to participate in a government of, by and for the people, then you should not settle for your words falling on deaf ears. You should celebrate anything which would amplify your voice and ensure that it is felt in the halls of our nation’s Capitol. 

When a minority holds the power to stamp out that voice, we no longer have democracy and we no longer maintain the spirit imbued in this country’s foundation. Cries of “tyranny of the majority” pale in comparison to the true-blue hijacking of the peoples’ will which the filibuster embodies. 

Indeed, how can we have a “representative democracy” when those we elect to represent us are bound and gagged by inane and racist precedent? But, God forbid the American government ever gains the ability to actually effect real change in the 21st century, right?

If you wish to see your lawmakers actually make laws instead of reading “Green Eggs and Ham,” consider contacting them and letting them know that the era of the filibuster,“stealthy” or not, must come to an end.