Americans who may never have heard of the filibuster–or who were previously only dimly aware of that parliamentary mechanism–are passionately debating its continued existence. One reason so many of us favor its elimination is that the filibuster in its current iteration bears little or no resemblance to the original rule.
Whatever the original purpose of the filibuster, for many years its use was infrequent. For one thing, it required a Senator to actually make a lengthy speech on the Senate floor–unlike today. In its current form, it operates to require government by super-majority–it has become a weapon employed by extremists to hold the country hostage.
A bit of history is instructive.
The original idea of a filibuster was that so long as a senator kept talking, the bill in question couldn’t move forward. Once those opposed to the measure felt they had made their case, or at least exhausted their argument, they would leave the Senate floor and allow a vote. In 1917, when filibustering Senators threatened President Wilson’s ability to respond to a perceived military threat, the Senate adopted a mechanism called cloture, allowing a super-majority vote to end a filibuster.
In 1975, the Senate again changed the rules, making it much, much easier to filibuster.
The new rules allowed other business to be conducted during the time a filibuster is (theoretically) taking place. Senators no longer are required to take to the Senate floor and publicly argue their case. This “virtual” use has increased dramatically as partisan polarization has worsened, and it has effectively abolished the principle of majority rule. It now takes the sixty votes needed for cloture to pass any legislation. This anti-democratic result isn’t just in direct conflict with the intent of the Founders, it has brought normal government operation to a standstill.
Meanwhile, the lack of any requirement to publicly debate the matter keeps Americans from hearing and evaluating the rationale for opposition to a measure–or even understanding why nothing is getting done.
There is really no principled argument for maintaining the filibuster in its current iteration. But there may be alternatives to simply jettisoning it, as Ezra Klein points out in a recent column about Joe Manchin.
Klein is clear-eyed about Manchin’s purported reasons for maintaining the filibuster– devotion to a long-gone “bipartisanship.”
At his worst, Manchin prizes the aesthetic of bipartisanship over its actual pursuit. In those moments, he becomes a defender of the status quo and, paradoxically, an enabler of Republican partisanship. But over the past 24 hours, a plausible path has emerged through which Manchin could build a more cooperative and deliberative Senate. It’s narrow, but it’s there.
Part of the strategy relies on changing the rules. Manchin has said, over and over again, that he will not eliminate or weaken the filibuster. I wish he’d reconsider, but he won’t. The possibility remains, however, that he will strengthen the filibuster.
Klein points out how dramatically the filibuster has morphed from its original form, and considers–in lieu of simply getting rid of it–how it might be returned to something approximating its historical form.
It’s possible to imagine a set of reforms that would restore something more like the filibuster of yore and rebuild the deliberative capacities of the Senate. This would begin with a variation on the congressional scholar Norm Ornstein’s idea to shift the burden of the filibuster: Instead of demanding 60 votes to end debate, require 40 (or 41) to continue it.
That would return the filibuster to something more like we imagine it to be: Impassioned minorities could hold the floor with theatrical speeches, shining public attention on their arguments, but the majority could end debate if the minority relented. To sustain this kind of filibuster would be grueling, which is as it should be. The filibuster is an extraordinary measure, and it should require extraordinary commitment to deploy.
The majority, for its part, would have to carefully weigh the consequences of proceeding with partisan legislation: They would gamble weeks or months of Senate time if they chose to face down a filibuster, with no guarantee of passage on the other end. A reform like this would demand more from both the majority and the minority and ignite the kinds of lengthy, public debates that the Senate was once known for.
In leaked audio published by The Intercept on Wednesday, Manchin appeared to favor exactly this kind of change. “I think, basically, it should be 41 people have to force the issue versus the 60 that we need in the affirmative,” he said.
I think that most of us who are exasperated by the constant, dishonest and sneaky use of the filibuster in its current form would be willing to give this modification a try.