White supremacists, homophobic zealots, and other discriminatory, anti-democratic ideologues have a powerful tool in the American Senate. That tool is the filibuster. The filibuster allows a minority of senators to needlessly impede the steady flow of American democracy and promote ideologies that are dangerous to the preservation of democratic institutions.
In 1806, the American Senate removed a rule that allowed debates on the Senate floor to be ended by a simple majority vote. Vice President Aaron Burr believed that the rule was unnecessary, as it was rarely used, and sought to clarify the responsibilities of the Senate by removing redundancies from the Senate’s rulebook. In doing so, Burr and the Senate accidentally created a loophole that would be exploited by America’s most anti-democratic senators for decades to come.
By removing the simple majority rule, the Senate had unwittingly made it impossible to stop a discussion on the Senate floor. A senator could now delay the passage of a bill they didn’t like by talking for as long as they can, with the rest of the Senate powerless to stop them. This is the filibuster, a method of stalling that is used by anti-democratic senators to slow America’s democratic process to a screeching halt.
The filibuster has led to some of the most ridiculous scenes in the history of the American government. For instance, in 1957, an aide to South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond set up a bucket in the Senate coatroom so that Thurmond, who was in the middle of a 24-hour long filibuster, could use the restroom while he was still standing on the Senate floor. However, the story becomes less funny when you realize Strom Thurmond was filibustering against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, a landmark bill that attempted to protect the voting rights of Black Americans.
Thurmond’s filibuster isn’t unique, as the filibuster has historically been used to further racist and discriminatory agendas, and the filibuster is still being used to disenfranchise minorities in the United States. In January of 2022, Republican senators successfully stopped the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. According to Brennan Center for Justice fellow Andrew Garber, the bill would have protected the voting rights of Americans of color from “a wave of voting restrictions and redistricting abuses.” The bill would have also outlawed common anti-democratic tactics, such as gerrymandering, and allowed the Department of Justice to monitor changes in voting legislation in states with a history of segregation. Just like in the past, the filibuster is often used today to weaken the voting rights of Black Americans, which undemocratically strips political power from a group of citizens because of their race.
The filibuster also damages American democracy by weakening the legislature. We can approximate the number of filibusters attempted each year by analyzing data on cloture from the United States Senate. The 106th Congress, which convened from 1999 to 2000, only had 71 motions for cloture, while the 116th Congress, which convened from 2019 to 2020, had 328 motions for cloture. Over only twenty years, the number of motions for cloture during a Congressional session has increased nearly five-fold. This suggests that the number of filibusters has increased by a similar amount over the past twenty years. Because filibusters prevent the American legislature from operating efficiently, the legislature is less efficient and thus weaker than it was twenty years ago.
Data on the amount of legislation successfully passed in the Senate shows how an increase in filibusters is correlated with the legislature successfully passing fewer bills. According to data from Pew Research Center, the 106th Congress passed 604 laws, while the 116th Congress passed only 344. And the American people are not blind to Congress’s declining productivity: a lack of legislative productivity causes the public to disapprove of Congress. According to David R. Jones, professor of political science at Baruch College, Americans losing faith in their governmental institutions threatens democratic stability in the United States, as disapproval of Congress in America is correlated with compliance with the law. When Americans do not trust their legislature they are less likely to comply with the law and when they do trust their legislature they are more likely to comply with the law. The filibuster has led to a decrease in legislative productivity in America’s Senate, and that lack of productivity leads to a lack of compliance with the law, which threatens the perceived legitimacy of the government and the ability of the government to govern effectively, two pillars of American democratic stability.
In light of the many problems with the filibuster, there have recently been many calls, primarily from Democrats, to abolish the filibuster. These efforts are admirable, as abolishing the filibuster would significantly improve the strength of democracy in America. However, efforts to abolish the filibuster have been unsuccessful and largely divided along partisan lines. When Senate Democrats were facing the strong Republican filibuster against the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, they decided to call a vote on abolishing the filibuster. The vote failed narrowly, by a 52 to 48 margin. These failures are disappointing, but growing calls to abolish the filibuster suggest that popular opinion may be turning against the filibuster and that the Senate filibuster may be on the way out.
The filibuster has a long and sordid history in the American Senate. Born from a loophole, the filibuster has been one of the most powerful legislative tools for reinforcing racial discrimination in America. Additionally, the increasing use of the filibuster has worsened popular opinion of the United States Congress, which threatens the legitimacy of the government and the government’s ability to govern effectively for its citizens, two important features of a functioning democracy. The filibuster is damaging American democracy every day, and it is essential for the preservation of democracy in America that the filibuster be abolished.