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Abolish the Filibuster

By Allison Markman

New York City, New York

The filibuster is repeatedly abused in our currently polarized society (Photo Credit: Brookings)

The filibuster, the archaic rule allowing a minority of Senators to stall a piece of legislation, has got to go.

Currently, with the narrow majority of 51-50 in the Senate, the filibuster will allow the Republicans to put crucial legislation on hold. While the filibuster has been regarded as a way to prevent despotism within the Senate, the procedure is simply a maneuver to stall bureaucracy, while making it difficult to pass any kind of substantial and important legislation for the American people. Currently, the only way to prevent a filibuster is to invoke cloture––a policy that requires a supermajority of 60 votes to end the debate and take a vote. Though in theory, the filibuster promotes bipartisanship, it is a procedure that is repeatedly abused in our currently polarized society. In today’s politics, we have witnessed how the filibuster has been solely used as a tool to slow down processes and the efficiency of the upper chamber of Congress. Without the reform or elimination of the filibuster, the Biden administration and the Democrats will have little success passing legislation. Democrats will have to wait until midterms, where they can gain additional seats.

Historically and most notably during the Civil War, the filibuster became a common practice in the Senate. President Barack Obama described the tool as a “Jim Crow Relic.” The filibuster was never created as a partisan way to stall bills. The filibuster actually originated accidentally when Vice President Aaron Burr revised the Senate rule book and eliminated the Previous Question Motion. Burr deleted the rule, believing it was redundant. However, the slight revision changed the rules in the Senate, eliminating the ability to move to the previous question on a bill with a simple majority of 51.

In the 1920s, Republican Senator from Massachusetts, Cabot Lodge, introduced a bill to counter lynchings. Though he had majority support, Southern Democratic Senators began to stall the process by taking advantage of loopholes in parliamentary procedure. To slow the process down they demanded that the Senate Journal be read out loud daily, making minor changes such as adding middle names, and then filibustering these changes. This left Lodge with no choice but to withdraw the bill. Over the next 20 years, Congress considered over 200 anti-lynching bills, yet not one was put into law. “The histories of the filibuster, civil and voting rights, and race in America are intertwined," said Steven S. Smith, a political scientist and Senate specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. Ties to the Senate filibuster and white supremacy have been made by many. It pertains to a legacy of segregation, and has remained in place as a way to maintain the systemic racism we see in today’s society. The persistence of these lynchings under the filibuster was later apologized for by the Senate in 2005. They called it “the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction.”

Today, the filibuster has the same opportunity to deny rights to millions of people. With the increased use of the filibuster, bills such as the Paycheck Fairness Act failed due to the cloture rule. Further, bills regarding gun violence and climate change have not even been put up for a vote because of the threat of filibuster. The For the People Act is a bill that would create automatic voter registration, and forces states to modernize their registration systems. It also increases absentee voting and eliminates the state's ability to remove people from voter rolls. Moreover, it would increase federal funding for election security and reform the redistricting process, eliminating gerrymandering. This bill will restore fair congressional districts and make it easier to register voters, but with little support from Republicans, it is unlikely the bill will receive enough Republican support to override the filibuster. This rule is stopping the Senate from passing a bill that makes our elections safer, and that is exactly why the filibuster can not exist in a democratic society. It is a motion that makes it increasingly difficult to institute equal rights, public safety, and climate change legislation. The filibuster’s worst offense is its continual holding back of civil rights. This is because the chamber allows two senators per state, which is a structure that favors small-population rural states. In other words, senators who represent states that are disproportionately white, have more power. This year, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) used a parliamentary delaying to hold up an anti-lynching bill. The filibuster has certainly allowed history to repeat itself. Though getting rid of the filibuster would not end all forms of systemic racism, it would certainly help anti-racist policies pass far more easily in the Senate.


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