By Julius Apostata
Talk to anyone, and you are bound to find many that hold very abstract ideas about ideal governance: if only we could pass our specific legislation, all of society’s problems would be immediately solved, and that the failure to pass such laws in Congress is only the result of those that do not want what’s best for America (with these Congressmen and Senators being paid off at best, or morally bankrupt and unethical at worst). Given this viewpoint, it would be best to characterize such Manichean statements as vastly oversimplified. Our legislative system was built upon a system of compromise, in which checks and balances prevented abuses of power. It should thus come as somewhat of a surprise as to why the filibuster has been all the talk in the news recently; a recent attempt by Senate Democrats was made to eliminate the current means of filibustering, which ultimately failed. Of course, this prompted the use of reckless rhetoric by President Biden (reckless rhetoric, mind you, that I would expect from former President Trump) that only sows the seeds of division in our country. With all this being said, I wish to argue that the current version of the filibuster is a necessary tool in our Senate.
First, it is important to clear up a minor misconception when it comes to the Senate filibuster: it was not written into the Constitution. Rather, the filibuster as we know it has origins several decades after our country’s founding, being first used in 1837. In the Senate, the basic premise of the filibuster works like this: a senator that wishes to either delay or prevent the passing of legislation could invoke the filibuster, in which they could speak for as long as they want on any topic they choose. Later political developments meant that a filibuster doesn’t even need a standing speech, but rather a 60% majority preventing cloture in the Senate, effectively meaning that major legislation requires either a 60% majority or compromise of the actual legislation. In the past, this has led to some rather lengthy filibusters, for noble and, at times, not-so-noble reasons. For instance, the filibuster was infamously exploited to delay civil-rights legislation in the past by those such as Strom Thurmond. It was also used more recently, with Senate Democrats using the filibuster 327 times to halt Republican proposals because, in the words of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), the Senate Republicans were not willing to negotiate changes to legislation in a bipartisan manner. It should also be noted that a filibuster doesn’t automatically kill a piece of legislation, but more often than not filibusters tend to fail. The point I am trying to make with this explanation is that the filibuster is simply a tool within each Senator’s toolkit.
With this very brief explanation in mind, many have recently begun to attack the filibuster, arguing that its existence is an impediment to governance. However, it is important to realize that the filibuster is a necessary legislative tool designed as a safeguard that, while abused in the past, still represents an important mechanism for compromise that attempts to represent the interests of all in a democracy. The complete elimination of this safeguard could have unforeseen consequences. Let’s consider, for instance, President Biden’s speech on January 11th, in which a speech about voting rights devolved into an “us-versus-them” polemic, where “Jim Crow 2.0” was promoting voter suppression and election subversion, and how at such a moment you could either be “Dr. King or George Wallace.” Ignoring the blatantly tribalistic and demagogic nature of this speech, Biden also alludes to the filibuster as being the thing that stands in the way of progress. However, say we enter a future in which the filibuster was scratched for political purposes (as doing so would allow the majority party to have full political power). In this scenario, large states would be able to completely dominate legislative agendas in the House of Representatives, with no input from the minority party. While at first this might not seem like that big of a deal, especially if you belong to that majority party, consider what would happen if, in the next election cycle, the opposition party won the majority, with plans to enact sweeping legislation at the expense of the agenda of the former ruling party and their constituents. There was a reason why Senate Democrats enacted the filibuster 327 times during Trump’s presidency: having it is necessary to reach across party lines and reach some form of compromise that satisfies both parties.
It’s understandable that Biden and Senate Democrats are frustrated with the fact that their full agenda has not come to fruition because of the filibuster. Yet eliminating the tool that is meant to reach across party lines would be effectively removing whatever safeguards are left in an increasingly polarized political environment. Even the rhetoric being used by those such as Biden should give one pause in the broader implications that such a removal might have. We should, therefore, keep the filibuster so that we could be able to have a means of reaching across political divisions, of attempting to reach a compromise, and to bring down the temperature in an increasingly partisan environment. Besides, you never know for sure who might be the next party to take power and what their proposed laws will be.