The mere mention of the word, filibuster, causes tingles to run down the spine of every American senator. Senators in the minority party love it for its literal showstopping authority. Those in the majority quake at the thought of even a single member aborting the will of their majority (although not a 60-vote super-majority).
In its most basic form, the filibuster relates to a Senate rule (which can be changed by a simple majority vote) that to end debate on a subject requires a 60-vote majority, called a super-majority. A senator or team of senators can speak at length on any topic and continue until 60 other senators have heard enough and vote to end that debate. Simple enough.
The power of the filibuster comes from its ability to stop all legislative action until the filibuster is broken by the vote of 60 senators. That stalemate inaction is never a good look for a government and the threat of it is a powerful weapon.
The Senate has never been an entirely democratic body. The arrangement whereby each state – no matter how many or few residents – gets two senators was a Constitutional concession to the smaller of the 13 original states that worried their interests would always be overridden by larger states. Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures, but the 17th Amendment changed that in 1913.
In a country that likes to call itself “the modern world’s oldest democracy,” the Senate is anything but democratic. Consider that the most populous state (California, with two senators) has more citizens than the bottom twenty-one states COMBINED (42 senators). Further, the nine most populous states (with 18 senators) represent more Americans than all the rest of the states (82 senators). The filibuster’s super-majority requirement based on senator count gives inordinate and unfair power to small population states.
In practical terms, the degree of imbalance will change as senators come and go from different sized states, but just look at today’s makeup in the two-party system. Although the senator count is split evenly, 50-50, the current “majority” party represents 56% of the country’s population. With the flip of a couple of large-state senate seats, the “majority” could represent over 60% of Americans and still not have the 60-senator count to stop a filibuster.
Fun Filibuster Fact #1. The name is derived from the French and Spanish words for pirate, referring to the hijacking of legislative business. It’s always been a tool of the minority to thwart the majority.
Fun Filibuster Fact #2. The longest single-person Senate filibuster was 24 hours and 18 minutes by Strom Thurmond in 1957, when he tried unsuccessfully to stop passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Next month I’ll write about suggestions to change the situation, ranging from eliminating the filibuster entirely to replacing it with other methods that protect small states or the minority. Unless some other juicy political topic arises, in which case that “Filibuster, Part II” will be archived where you can read all prior columns: https://indivisiblesb.org/the-mesa-paper/