More Than One Way To Skin The Filibuster Cat…

Americans who may never have heard of the filibuster–or who were previously only dimly aware of that parliamentary mechanism–are passionately debating its continued existence. One reason so many of us favor its elimination is that the filibuster in its current iteration bears little or no resemblance to the original rule.

Whatever the original purpose of the filibuster, for many years its use was infrequent. For one thing, it required a Senator to actually make a lengthy speech on the Senate floor–unlike today. In its current form, it operates to require government by super-majority–it has become a weapon employed by extremists to hold the country hostage.

A bit of history is instructive.

The original idea of a filibuster was that so long as a senator kept talking, the bill in question couldn’t move forward. Once those opposed to the measure felt they had made their case, or at least exhausted their argument, they would leave the Senate floor and allow a vote. In 1917, when filibustering Senators threatened President Wilson’s ability to respond to a perceived military threat, the Senate adopted a mechanism called cloture, allowing a super-majority vote to end a filibuster.

In 1975, the Senate again changed the rules, making it much, much easier to filibuster.

The new rules allowed other business to be conducted during the time a filibuster is (theoretically) taking place. Senators no longer are required to take to the Senate floor and publicly argue their case. This “virtual” use has increased dramatically as partisan polarization has worsened, and it has effectively abolished the principle of majority rule. It now takes the sixty votes needed for cloture to pass any legislation. This anti-democratic result isn’t just in direct conflict with the intent of the Founders, it has brought normal government operation to a standstill.

Meanwhile, the lack of any requirement to publicly debate the matter keeps Americans  from hearing and evaluating the rationale for opposition to a measure–or even understanding why nothing is getting done.

There is really no principled argument for maintaining the filibuster in its current iteration. But there may be alternatives to simply jettisoning it, as Ezra Klein points out in a recent column about Joe Manchin.

Klein is clear-eyed about Manchin’s purported reasons for maintaining the filibuster– devotion to a long-gone “bipartisanship.”

At his worst, Manchin prizes the aesthetic of bipartisanship over its actual pursuit. In those moments, he becomes a defender of the status quo and, paradoxically, an enabler of Republican partisanship. But over the past 24 hours, a plausible path has emerged through which Manchin could build a more cooperative and deliberative Senate. It’s narrow, but it’s there.

Part of the strategy relies on changing the rules. Manchin has said, over and over again, that he will not eliminate or weaken the filibuster. I wish he’d reconsider, but he won’t. The possibility remains, however, that he will strengthen the filibuster.

Klein points out how dramatically the filibuster has morphed from its original form, and considers–in lieu of simply getting rid of it–how it might be returned to something approximating its historical form.

It’s possible to imagine a set of reforms that would restore something more like the filibuster of yore and rebuild the deliberative capacities of the Senate. This would begin with a variation on the congressional scholar Norm Ornstein’s idea to shift the burden of the filibuster: Instead of demanding 60 votes to end debate, require 40 (or 41) to continue it.

That would return the filibuster to something more like we imagine it to be: Impassioned minorities could hold the floor with theatrical speeches, shining public attention on their arguments, but the majority could end debate if the minority relented. To sustain this kind of filibuster would be grueling, which is as it should be. The filibuster is an extraordinary measure, and it should require extraordinary commitment to deploy.

The majority, for its part, would have to carefully weigh the consequences of proceeding with partisan legislation: They would gamble weeks or months of Senate time if they chose to face down a filibuster, with no guarantee of passage on the other end. A reform like this would demand more from both the majority and the minority and ignite the kinds of lengthy, public debates that the Senate was once known for.

In leaked audio published by The Intercept on Wednesday, Manchin appeared to favor exactly this kind of change. “I think, basically, it should be 41 people have to force the issue versus the 60 that we need in the affirmative,” he said.

I think that most of us who are exasperated by the constant, dishonest and sneaky use of the filibuster in its current form would be willing to give this modification a try. 

Fingers crossed.


  1. Listening to or reading the article about Manchin talking with his oligarchic donors is really all one needs to know about the filibuster or any other practices in the senate. Just read this passage:

    “normal government operation to a standstill”

    Nobody has to sneak on a phone call with the GOP and their owners because the policy isn’t a priority. The theatrical role is to grandstand on Fox News. Tell their base how “outraged” they are over this or that. The Koch network owns the senate.

    The DNC is where the real bottlenecks and obstructions take place. Any meaningful actions from the progressive wing are crippled by the DNC actors. The storytelling comes from the top-down. There is no holding truth to power in the flow of power from oligarchy to the people. No checks on power. No stopping and questioning the motives. No counterarguments. It’s all about “how can we get this past the Leftists who want to reform things?”

    We are so far behind reforming that now lawsuits become relevant and guess what happens then? Who’s been packing the courts with judges? LOL

    Meanwhile, the disparity between the states and what they are capable of doing is growing further and further apart by the day.

    Bipartisanship is an excuse used to retain the status quo at the federal level because there is nothing united about our states.

  2. We know Manchin gets a ton of cash from fossil fuel industries. That’s one reason why he so obstinately leaves the people of West Virginia in the coal sludge of history. Coal just doesn’t sell, but don’t tell that to the miners.

    Is Manchin delusional or is he just bought? Maybe a little bit of both. He must understand that he will never get 10 Republicans to agree on anything that wasn’t their own legislation. He should also understand that, if McConnell were in Schumer’s position, the filibuster would be long gone by now. He’s essentially saying he’s okay with that.

  3. The filibuster is just another political mechanism to prevent incompetent elected officials who are more interested in their optics and images than actually legislating. This is what corporate money exacerbates. The incompetent boobs, aka Senators, are terrified of making a decision that makes them seem opposed to what they think their constituents want.

    But now, we see issues that poll at over 70% by the voters and STILL these boobs fuss and fume and hide behind McConnell’s skirts. Well done, voters. You are digging your own graves.

  4. Peggy is right. As soon as the R’s retake the Senate, the filibuster will be gone. And so will our democracy. Charles Koch will be emperor with a Trump facsimile as figurehead.

  5. Why do we even need a filibuster?? As far as I am aware, no other legislative body has such a rule.

  6. I read that article by Ezra Klein and thought it was thoughtful and full of good ideas. I would also point you to the essay by Daniel Brian from the Project On Governmental Oversight (POGO) about common sense reforms to the filibuster:
    The reason we need a functional filibuster in the Senate is to keep the majority from having complete power over the minority, but in it’s present form it is dysfunctional, and causes chaos. It should not be eliminated entirely, but it needs serious reform.

  7. In the mid 90s, the state legislature debated a bill that would impose a “permanent” ban on local measured service for phone companies, then still 95% land lines. In debate the author was asked to define permanent. He replied, “Until we choose to amend it in another session”.

  8. Yes, ML, I believe you are right. It is just one more way in which we are “Exceptional.”
    Manchin, I believe, is not delusional, just self-serving and owned by Koch.

  9. When circumstances promote an individual to the limelight, that lime colored light that marks your spot on the stage, the urge to spread those peacock feathers is irresistible!

    Just like a band that breaks up because the lead singer, or the lead guitar player, or the bands lyricist needs to be recognized more than the whole. So they go out on their own and more often than not are not as successful as the original team.

    The urge to be self important, and aggrandized amongst media, or the public, in one way or another, is just too irresistible to pass up. The GOP does it on their side, fawning after Donald Trump, knowingly supporting ignorance just to get the attention of the ignorant.

    Sadly, as was brought out many times in the past year, history is cyclical. And, if you look back at any democratically comparative history, the same thing happens over and over again! The society collapses because it shoots itself in the foot, and refuses to use the formula that made it a great Society in the first place. They allow the insanity to control government therefore making it impossible to govern!

    If you honestly think that today is any different than past history, then I would suggest you continue on your fool’s errand! The only thing that would prevent this accelerating slide into the insane asylum is to have someone appear and put the kibosh on all of it. But, as was brought out, was to prevent that individual from enjoying the limelight too much for them self?

    Well, it’s six of one and a half dozen of the other, compromise will never be a product of today’s politics, you don’t just wave a magic wand and get rid of the partisan mentality. So, you have a path that could probably remedy the situation, and rewrite the rulebooks, or, you can continue on a path that is proven useless, and, the collapse of the society will be deafening, and quite fearful!

    Peacocks always have to strut their stuff, do you take a risk on one or the other? Which peacock seems to have the best interests of its territory involved? Well, you saw the results of those peacocks on the right on January 6, and, in every major city in this country where men women and children are mowed down by weapons designed for a battlefield!

    And, there’s one thing that they haven’t touched on yet, and there is pretty solid local information on this! There are hunting expeditions by white nationalists into the cities, shooting people from cars and on the expressways and neighborhoods, getting badges and internal CRED for it!

    If this was to come to light in a credible manner, this country would be ripped to shreds in a few days.

  10. I am still with the Greeks in the agora, from whom Jefferson came up with idea of consent of the governed for legitimacy, majority rule and other small d protocols. While the Constitution gives the rights of the House and Senate to make their own rules, it does not in my opininon give them the right to destroy such protocols with “rules” made for reason of political expediency. I think the Supreme Court should be consulted on this issue.

    Meanwhile, I remain a purist. Majority rule is to be observed irrespective of any legislative rule. The filibuster and any other legislatively adopted rule not in consonance with majority rule is, I think, unconstitutional, in that it invalidates the will of the majority of voters (itself a victim of decennial gerrymandering (but a different issue).

  11. There is a single purpose behind majority rule and that is that the only alternative is minority rule which requires choosing a minority to give power to. It’s easier for those seeking power to fool a minority than a majority.

  12. The changes in the filibuster allow the minority to become obstructionist. As a result, the Senate becomes paralyzed. If someone feels that passionate about their objection to a bill, he/she should be willing to stand and talk for hours on end. I think it should take 51 votes to end a fillibuster, not 60.

    Sen. Manchin comes from a very red, Trump supporting state. He has to look like a Republican in disguise if he wishes to retain his seat and yet, act at times like a democrat. I respect his attempts to create bills that are bipartisan. Even Stacey Abrams supports his changes to the Voting Rights act. McConnell wants to undermine his attempts to be bipartisan. McConnell is a brat who does not play fair on the play ground. He’s a bully who uses civil language to disguise his lust for power.

    If Congress is ever going to be able to govern well again, it will take many more representatives and Senators who believe in bipartisanship.

    And in the meantime, Kamala Harris had a dinner with all the women Senators. If we are going to create bipartisanship again, then Congress needs to sit down to dinner more and get to know one another better. It’s time the men got together at the dinner table.

  13. is a nonprofit PAC seeking to return the filibuster to its original intent. We’ve tried to capture the essence of the movement and establish a home base for all things filibuster; a clearinghouse of the best thinking on the subject.

  14. Peggy, the Republicans held the U.S. Senate until 2019. McConnell, was the Majority Leader the entire time and he did not get rid of the filibuster. Indeed the filibuster is why Trump couldn’t get the Republican controlled Senate to pass crazy sh*** passed he proposed.

  15. The only legitimate excuse for the filibuster is to prevent the majority from stifling the voice of the minority, so a non-speaking filibuster is a total perversion of democracy that is multiplied by two senators per state, gerrymandering, voting restrictions, and Citizens United to make the US a corrupt oligarchy (like Russia).

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