FIXING THE FILIBUSTER

Here’s issue #36 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 6/15/12. The previous issue outlined the abuse of the filibuster [1] and its impact on the gridlock in Congress. This issue focuses on what can be done about it.

The requirement for 60 votes to end debate and stop a filibuster is part of the Senate’s rules of operation. This cloture rule, as it is called, was adopted in 1975, so it is not part of the Constitution or even a rule with great historical tradition. [2] It means that 41 Senators, who potentially represent less than 15% of the US population, can bring progress in the Senate to a halt.

The Founding Fathers and the Constitutional Convention considered and rejected requiring a super majority vote to pass legislation. They established the fundamental principle of our democracy of majority rule in a legislative body. [3] As a result, the Constitution specifically lists six instances when a super majority vote is required, such as impeachment, overriding a presidential veto, ratifying a treaty, and amending the Constitution. [4]

The current, unprecedented use of the filibuster is largely unreported by the media. They typically describe the need for 60 votes to proceed in the Senate as ordinary procedure and rarely differentiate a bill or other matter that had enough votes to pass (51 or more) but was filibustered (i.e., didn’t have the 60 votes needed to end debate) from one that didn’t have the 51 votes to pass. [5]

Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat from Iowa) has proposed that the first cloture vote to end debate require 60 votes, but that over a period of days or weeks the required vote fall to a simple majority of 51 Senators. This would allow ample time for debate and discussion, in the Senate and with the public, but would provide an incentive for compromise and an ability to stop obstruction. He originally introduced this proposal in 1995 when the Democrats were in the minority, so he is offering it as an institutional reform, not to gain a partisan advantage. [6] Other Senators have presented other proposals to change the Senate’s rules to weaken the power of the filibuster. However, it takes 67 votes to change a Senate rule in the middle of a two year Congressional session. A simple majority vote of 51 Senators can change the rules when they are adopted at the beginning of a session, which occurs after an election (e.g., in January 2013).

In May 2012, a lawsuit was filed against the Senate claiming that the filibuster is unconstitutional. It was brought by four members of the US House of Representatives, three immigrant students (who would have been helped by the DREAM Act that was filibustered), and the nonpartisan, good government group Common Cause. [7] [8]

There is growing agreement that the filibuster is being seriously abused and significantly harming the ability of our federal government to govern effectively. Because of the partisan implications of filibuster reform, it is unclear whether this consensus or the current efforts to fix the filibuster will reduce its use.


[1]       A filibuster occurs when one or more Senators refuse to end debate on a piece of legislation or other matter. It requires a super-majority of 60 out of 100 votes to close off debate (cloture) and allow a vote on the bill or other matter.

[2]       Wikipedia, retrieved 6/8/12, “Filibuster in the United States Senate”

[3]       Harkin, T., 6/30/10, “Fixing the filibuster,” The Nation

[4]       Millhiser,I., 5/15/12, “Four members of Congress sue to declare the filibuster unconstitutional,” Think Progress

[5]       PR Newswire, 12/18/07, “Record breaking: Senate conservatives use filibuster for 62nd time in this session of Congress,” United Business Media

[6]       Harkin, T., 6/30/10, “Fixing the filibuster,” The Nation

[7]       Wong, S., 5/14/12, “Group sues Senate to scrap filibuster,” Politico

[8]       Millhiser,I., 5/15/12, “Four members of Congress sue to declare the filibuster unconstitutional,” Think Progress

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