No Option for Filibuster

Filibusters by Republicans and Democrats.

Filibusters by Republicans and Democrats.

Even after 20 children were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, gun-control legislation was shot down in the Senate. Although 54 senators voted in favor of a proposal to expand background checks on gun purchases, this amendment was defeated for failure to attain the 60 votes needed to force a vote. In other words, the filibuster was the opponents’ weapon of choice.

The House of Representatives adopted a “public option” to administer health-care coverage in 2009, but it was not an option in the Senate. Because of concern that a bill containing the public option could not get the necessary 60 votes, the public option was removed from the Senate bill. The cause of death: a potential filibuster.

As the presidential election moves into its final stages, the fate of the filibuster deserves attention equal to the ramifications of the Electoral College and the attendant congressional elections.

Whatever your political leanings, a candidate must prevail in the Electoral College even if he or she is elected to the presidency in the popular election; the president can only succeed with the cooperation of Congress; and the Senate’s majority can only enact laws when the minority cannot block its legislation through a device such as the filibuster.

Let us hope that we elect a progressive president supported by a responsible Congress that seriously strives to make America a better place for us all.

At the present rate, the Democratic nominee will win both the popular election and the Electoral College, and Democrats will retake the Senate. Due to turmoil in the Republican Party, the Democrats’ chances of seizing control of the House of Representatives are increasing. Of course, there is no guarantee the Democrats will achieve any of these outcomes.

However, the Democrats can cripple their chance for accomplishment if they permit the retention of the Senate’s filibuster power, which allows the minority to block legislation. Sixty votes are needed to end a filibuster.

Interestingly, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Republican, complained that Democrats have abused the filibuster since Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015. Former Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, griped in a Washington Post op-ed in 2011 that it was the Republicans abusing their filibuster power.

Neither party abused its power. They exercised the power granted to them by the majority. Democrats before and after 2011 permitted Republicans to obstruct legislation that the majority of senators supported. As mentioned above, two legislative initiatives that went nowhere included a form of government-sponsored health insurance known as the “public option,” and strong gun-control legislation that resulted from the mass murder of 26 students and school officials at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Citizens who are oblivious to the filibuster’s downside may blame former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman for defeat of the “public option” since, as an independent, he usually sided with the 59 Democrats who served in the Senate at that time. He upheld the filibuster. Is he supposed to follow the Democratic line? He did represent the citizens of Connecticut, not any political party. Lieberman’s vote was surely appalling and likely motivated by insurance lobbyists, but he was able to obstruct the “public option” because senators in both parties gave him this power.

Most progressive voters vote Democratic because they see the party as representing their interests. Yet what good does it do to elect a senator whose hands are tied by the filibuster?

The Constitution says nothing about a filibuster. Both chambers of Congress acted on majority votes when they convened in 1789. The cloture to end filibusters was formally enacted in 1917, but a change in procedure dates back to 1805 when departing Vice President Aaron Burr complained about the dearth of debates in the Senate. The next year, the Senate eliminated its rule requiring a simple majority to end debate, and 111 years later the Senate voted to require 67 votes to end a filibuster. This was later reduced to 60.

Attempts to change the filibuster have been made in recent years, but have usually failed. Democrats have since narrowed the influence of the filibuster, but it can still block legislation.

Democrats consistently represent the majority of Americans whether or not they control the Senate. As a reminder, each state is represented by two senators no matter its population. The Democratic Caucus in the Senate represents about 170 million people out of our population of 310 million. The senators from third-place New York and first-place California combined represent 58 million people, which is already one-sixth of the population.

More low population states are represented by Republicans, giving the GOP an advantage in the Senate. The relatively few populous states have big cities which tend to vote Democratic. The numerous small population states tend to be more rural and are more likely to vote Republican.

If Democrats retake the Senate, they will probably represent two-thirds of the population. If they oust the Republican incumbents in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – whose Senate delegations are now split between both parties – an additional 60 million people will be represented by Democrat-only Senate delegations. Republican incumbent John McCain is even endangered in Arizona, thanks to Donald Trump’s denigration of Mexican immigrants.

But what difference will a Democratic majority make in the Senate if the filibuster effectively allows last-place Wyoming (pop. 500,000) to outvote California?



  1. Publisher says

    Bruce Ticker explains well how the filibuster and the non-proportional representation in the Senate work together to stymie legislation supported by the vast majority of Americans.

    Of the two problems, the filibuster should be the easiest to remedy. The filibuster is a Senate procedural rule. It was adopted by the Senate and it can be changed by the Senate by a simple majority vote when it reconvenes on January 3, 2017.

    On the other hand, Section 3 of Article I of the United Constitution begins “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State…” As such, this rule can only be changed by a constitutional amendment. This would require the support of at least 67 senators and 38 states. However, this would require many State Legislators and United States Senators hailing from small states to vote against the narrow interests of their own constituents.

    • says

      Dan’s proposed constitutional amendment would be unconstitutional, I’m afraid. Article V of the Constitution provides, among other things, that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.”

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