The Filibuster, Explained

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There’s been much debate in recent years about the efficacy of the filibuster. The Republican Party has used the arcane process to block specific meaningful legislation that would have been beneficial to millions of Americans. To be clear, Democrats have also used the filibuster; blocking judges or presidential appointees, for example.

But it’s time to take a look at what the filibuster is, what are its origins, and what important legislation it has stopped from becoming law. A couple of things stand out. For one, there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that mentions anything about the filibuster. It’s simply a Senate rule that’s been in place for nearly 200 years. Secondly, the process was born out of pure unadulterated racism — a mechanism that allowed the despicable practice of slavery to continue being used, mostly by wealthy white land owners in the South.

To take a deeper dive into all of this, I’m providing the following article by long-time New York Times best selling author and top liberal talk-show host Thom Hartmann. Thom is a wonderful source for this topic and has written many novels pertaining to the history of our democracy. You can follow him over at thomhartmann.medium.com, which is where this article was posted earlier today.

We need to take a long hard look at the filibuster and what we can do to either end it entirely, or modify it, as has been done several times in the past.

The Filibuster Was Grounded in Slavery and Now Threatens All Life on Earth

It has to end, and you can help

Thom Hartmann4 hours ago·5 min read

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s time to end the filibuster and bring democracy to the US Senate.

The filibuster was invented by “the Grandfather of the Confederacy” John C. Calhoun, and its only purpose is to block legislation that otherwise has broad popular support but is opposed by racists and big corporate special interest groups.

It’s not even in the Constitution; the Founders were horrified by the thought of such a thing, because it allows a 2/5ths minority of senators to block any action by the senate majority.

Sadly, two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are blocking the Senate from killing this democracy-crippling anachronism.

The hidden history of the filibuster

The Founding generation were almost universally opposed to anything resembling the filibuster; James Madison fought any such rule right up until his death in 1836.

It is, after all, anti-democratic in that it gives a minority of senators the ability to block any legislation simply by raising their hand or sending a one-sentence note to their colleagues. A single senator can invoke it, and a minority of 41 out of 100 senators can sustain it until legislation dies.

By the 1830s, the institution of slavery was under widespread attack in America. England had outlawed it, northern states were hardening their opinions, and the national debate that erupted a decade earlier with the Missouri Compromise was becoming heated.

Former President John Quincey Adams (1825–1829), after he left the White House, ran for and was elected to the House of Representatives with the main purpose of ending slavery; Congress had passed a law against slavery even being mentioned in debate on the floor and Adams went out of his way to break that law every single day that Congress was in session.

John C. Calhoun had been Adams’ Vice President (they were bitter enemies; it was because nobody won a majority in the Electoral College and the election was thrown to the House) and then Andrew Jackson’s Vice President. In 1932, he resigned as VP to be appointed to South Carolina’s Senate seat by that state’s governor.

Once in the Senate, Calhoun invented the filibuster specifically to increase the power of his plantation-owning colleagues and block any sort of anti-slavery legislation. (Calhoun not only defended the right to keep human beings enslaved; in an infamous 1837 floor speech he called slavery “a positive good.”)

The filibuster delayed Civil Rights laws for a century

And it worked. The filibuster not only kept any anti-slavery legislation from being passed throughout Calhoun’s lifetime, but after Reconstruction collapsed with the Hayes election in 1876 it was turned against Civil Rights legislation.

As historian Adam Jentleson notes, “[F]rom the 87 years between when Reconstruction ended until 1964, the only category of legislation against which the filibuster was deployed to actively stop bills in their tracks was civil rights legislation.”

In 1964 and 1965 Southern conservatives tried to block LBJ’s Civil- and Voting-Rights legislation with a filibuster; President Johnson, however, invoked the death of JFK and mobilized massive nationwide popular support to pressure senators to pull together a successful super-majority and overcome the Southern filibuster. Sadly, such examples are rare.

The filibuster is now used by Big Business to screw Americans

Today the filibuster is used by special interests to protect their own financial interests such as keeping weapons of war on our streets, killing our children in numbers not seen in any other developed country in the world.

For example, after the brutal 2012 slaughter of 20 first-graders and 6 adults at Sandy Hook, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) put together a modest bill to increase the use of background checks to purchase weapons.

Fully 55 senators supported the legislation, as did 80–90% of the American public, but Republicans beholden to the gun industry launched a filibuster, killing the legislation by requiring 60 votes for passage.

The filibuster was a useful tool — and excuse for racist Senators — to block any sort of Civil Rights legislation for four generations. Today it’s a convenient shield for cowardly senators to avoid going on the record about their opposition to popular legislation, instead just shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Hey, it takes sixty votes; what can I do?”

Since the 1960s, the filibuster is the favorite tool of well-funded special interests like the American Petroleum Institute, the US Chamber of Commerce, and Big Banking to prevent any sort of meaningful action on climate change, labor rights and consumer protections (among other things).

Senate Democrats represent 41 million more American voters than do Senate Republicans, but the minority GOP is today using the filibuster to help out their billionaire donors and the industries that made them rich the same way Southern senators did to keep slavery intact prior to the Civil War.

Modify the filibuster?

Most Americans think the filibuster requires a senator to stand and talk and talk and talk, and ends when the senator sits down — because most Americans got their information about it from dramatizations like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

If the filibuster can’t be immediately killed, a short-term measure may be to modify the rules around it to actually make it work the way it’s portrayed in the movies. That way, it must eventually end and a majority vote can be held.

It’s been modified many times over the years, after all. Harry Reid oversaw ending the filibuster on federal judges; Mitch McConnell extended that to Supreme Court Justices so he could get Trump’s controversial nominees through. At one time it required 66 votes; now it’s 60.

This “stand and speak, and when you sit down it ends” change may well be the thing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he had up his sleeve when interviewed January 25th by Rachael Maddow. It could work.

Call your senators, and Manchin & Sinema

The contemporary filibuster’s open Senate advocates include every single Republican (in the pocket of all the industries listed above, among others) and Democrats Joe Manchin (Big Coal/Oil) and Kyrsten Sinema (Big Banks & Insurance).

If Manchin and Sinema continue to block Democrats’ efforts to end the filibuster to protect their biggest donors, large parts of the Biden agenda are in grave danger. Worse, with the near-certainty it’ll be used to block effective climate legislation, their obstruction threatens all life on Earth.

The office of every US Senator can be reached by calling 202–224–3121. Now might be a good time to let your two senators, along with Manchin and Sinema, know your opinion.

22 comments

  1. Jeff, I would ask those who are arguing for its removal to consider would they be as passionate for it if their party was not in the majority. A prime example was removing the filibuster on judges. So, now instead of more tangible judges to both sides, we end up with judges that have some bias. As an independent, I want moderate judges, not partisan ones. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You make a valid point also, Keith … but more often it is used against the people, against policies that would help, rather than harm, the average person. I, too, want non-partisan judges, I want ones who consider the best interests of people, not only the wealthy. I’m still in favour of ousting the filibuster, however. There has got to be a better way! Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yeah, that really is the main issue with getting rid of it isn’t it? I go back and forth on it. I realize that if Dems do it, McConnell, or whomever takes his place, will do the same and they may enact legislation that the majority of people think is abhorrent. Maybe a modification of it in some manner? I mean, it was moved from a 66 vote threshold down to 60. So, it’s not unprecedented. My guess is that Schumer will eventually do some legislation through the reconciliation process when the attempt at bi-partisanship fails, which, I fear, is inevitable. You do realize that McConnell’s goal with Obama was to make him fail at everything, right? I highly doubt he will help Biden in any way. But, we shall see. They need to at least try.

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      1. Looking at the real origination of the filibuster may be the answer. Perhaps if we re-instate the deleted rule, we can bring back civility and bi-partisan co-operation.

        The History of the filibuster, as described by Sarah A. Binder, a Senior Fellow of Governance Studies, describes it this way:

        “Origins of the filibuster
        We have many received wisdoms about the filibuster. However, most of them are not true. The most persistent myth is that the filibuster was part of the founding fathers’ constitutional vision for the Senate: It is said that the upper chamber was designed to be a slow-moving, deliberative body that cherished minority rights. In this version of history, the filibuster was a critical part of the framers’ Senate.

        However, when we dig into the history of Congress, it seems that the filibuster was created by mistake. Let me explain.

        The House and Senate rulebooks in 1789 were nearly identical. Both rulebooks included what is known as the “previous question” motion. The House kept their motion, and today it empowers a simple majority to cut off debate. The Senate no longer has that rule on its books.

        What happened to the Senate’s rule? In 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr was presiding over the Senate (freshly indicted for the murder of Alexander Hamilton), and he offered this advice. He said something like this. You are a great deliberative body. But a truly great Senate would have a cleaner rule book. Yours is a mess. You have lots of rules that do the same thing. And he singles out the previous question motion. Now, today, we know that a simple majority in the House can use the rule to cut off debate. But in 1805, neither chamber used the rule that way. Majorities were still experimenting with it. And so when Aaron Burr said, get rid of the previous question motion, the Senate didn’t think twice. When they met in 1806, they dropped the motion from the Senate rule book.

        Why? Not because senators in 1806 sought to protect minority rights and extended debate. They got rid of the rule by mistake: Because Aaron Burr told them to.

        Once the rule was gone, senators still did not filibuster. Deletion of the rule made possible the filibuster because the Senate no longer had a rule that could have empowered a simple majority to cut off debate. It took several decades until the minority exploited the lax limits on debate, leading to the first real-live filibuster in 1837.” This is taken from https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/the-history-of-the-filibuster/

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for that Deb, and thanks for taking the time to explain some more of the history of the filibuster. I did not know of the ‘previous question’ issue or Aaron Burr’s influence on that matter. Very interesting. We definitely need to reform how the Senate does business. The ‘minority rights’ portion of this is what’s going to be why the R’s will defend it till the death, so to speak. If we can get it right, though, I believe we can get some meaningful stuff done for the American people. The question is whether the Dems have the guts to do it. We shall see.

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  2. Good post, Jeff! The filibuster could have been a positive tool, but it has been misused so many times that I have to agree with you … it has to go. This isn’t governance, it’s a damn three-ring circus! Sigh. Somebody send ol’ Mitchie home, please!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He is THE one person stopping progress for the American people. Over and over he’s done it. All he wants are tax cuts and right wing judges. Enough of that B.S. Schumer must take a hard line at some point. If he doesn’t, we’re doomed again in 2022. We cannot let that happen.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. All systems are prone to abuse. There are tricks and legal flummery. There can be hidden agendas behind someone’s claim to defence of democracy and there can be making a genuine stand on a point of principal.
    Personally I am suspicious of the US filibuster it has been used too often by vested interests and those against progress. Like the Electoral College it has been fopund wanting

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s time to get work done for the American people Roger. If it means getting rid of the filibuster, so be it. People want results. Nobody wants to hear excuses about ‘process.’

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I believe the first constructive step would be for those level-headed Republicans and Democrats getting together, probably at the ‘town-hall’ level. Get a groundswell growing to put ‘United’ back in the USA, before it’s too late (as laid out in my previous possible scenarios- and I will not repeat as they are depressing)

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Determined — I really like your remark about putting “United” back in the USA! We need someone (media? Congress? Twitterers?) to pick up on it as a slogan and replace that stupid MAGA!

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes he is. How one man from a poor southern state can have such raw political power is unseemly and just plain wrong. We need to take back the power from him and the other whack jobs and start righting the ship for America. Enough is enough.

      Liked by 1 person

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