Civics for Change: Mythbusting the Filibuster
“When there’s a bill in sight
That you don’t really like,
Who you gonna call?
Aside from the U.S. Senate floor, government classes, and that one episode of Parks and Rec, the filibuster isn’t something you hear about regularly. So what is the filibuster? The filibuster is a political practice or strategy used by senators whose party has less than 51 Senate seats (AKA the minority party) to block bills from proceeding without their approval. (A handful of state legislatures have the practice too, but for our purposes, we’re going to focus on the U.S. Senate.) The filibuster has been around for centuries, but with 2021’s evenly split Senate and party polarization, all eyes have been on the filibuster and whether it might be time to retire the practice. Things are complicated, to say the least, so let’s get started and bust some filibuster myths!
Myth 1: The filibuster is an important Senate practice laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
Although it has been a part of American politics for a while and has a large impact on the Senate, the filibuster is not embedded in the Constitution. Unlike the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate debate period is unlimited, so over time, senators realized they could “extend the debate” by filibustering.
Myth 2: The filibuster ensures that only highly supported bills are passed.
Normally, for a bill to pass the Senate, it must go through a period of debate and then to a vote. If a simple majority of 51 or more senators is in favor, the bill is passed. When a senator calls for a filibuster, they are purposefully choosing to delay or prevent a bill from going to a vote. The only way to move forward from there is for 60 senators to vote to override the filibuster, in a process known as cloture. Cloture means that the debate period is over and that the bill will then proceed to a vote. At that point, the bill will need the standard 51 votes to pass and be signed into law. If the cloture does not pass, the filibuster continues, and the bill status stays in limbo. Since any senator can filibuster, highly supported legislation can easily be intentionally derailed. For example, four senators led a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for 54 days, even though a majority of Americans supported the act.
Myth 3: The filibuster allows for healthy debate.
When a senator calls for a filibuster they are choosing to delay or prevent a bill from being voted on by “extending the debate;” however, this doesn’t mean that they actually discuss the bill. Until fifty years ago, a filibustering senator had to continue talking to keep the filibuster in effect, but they weren’t limited to talking about the bill in question. Democratic Senator Huey Long talked about his recipes for fried oysters and potlikker during his fifteen-hour speech in 1935. For the past fifty years, talking has no longer been needed. Nowadays, calling for a filibuster just means that a bill will now need 60 votes instead of the standard 51 to move forward, making the filibuster a relatively easy (and painless) process for the filibustering senator. But the process still doesn’t translate to a proper debate.
Myth 4: The filibuster protects minorities.
A filibuster is a political tool used to amplify the voices of the minority party in the Senate, not people who are minorities. Between the late 1870s and 1964, the filibuster was used almost exclusively against civil rights. In fact, the longest filibuster in U.S. history was against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which placed federal protections on voting rights, especially for Black Americans, and paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today the filibuster and minority voting rights are facing off again. Right now, the Senate has the opportunity to pass the For The People Act, which would override attempts at the state level to subvert minority voters. In spite of being supported by a majority of Americans and making voting more equitable for all Americans, the For the People Act is currently at risk of being shelved because of the filibuster and its anticipated use by the minority party.
Myth 5: The filibuster skews the Senate.
By definition, the filibuster is simply a tool and practice. Over the years it has been weaponized by both parties for their agendas and has repeatedly been used against civil rights legislation. However, in times of hyperpolarization, there have been instances where the filibuster has been a useful way to ensure that both sides are considered. In response to the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in 2016, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy filibustered to highlight congressional inaction on gun violence. Murphy’s filibuster ultimately allowed for two proposed gun control measures to be voted on, and although they did not pass, they brought national attention to the gun control debate.
All in all, the filibuster is a procedural tool that doesn’t always reflect the needs and wishes of the American people. The nature of the filibuster and how entrenched it is in the icky parts of politics can be disheartening. The filibuster’s complicated history and uses make the current debate on its worth all the more tricky. As we work to make our democracy equitable and accessible to all, it is important that we remember that our voice should be amplified above all. Amplify your voice and that of all Americans by supporting the For The People Act, and help make sure that every voter is able to access the ballot box and be heard. Contact your senators here.
About the Author
Rachel Sondkar is the Communications Associate at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She is a UC Berkeley graduate, and a former Andrew Goodman Ambassador.