The filibuster: protecting or destroying democracy?

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The Senate filibuster is currently up for debate. 

The filibuster, which allows a congressperson the ability to delay and block debate and voting on a bill by any constructive means, is widely misunderstood regarding its historical and legislative effect. 

President Biden’s stance remains largely status quo, getting him in trouble with civil rights groups. 

“My question is how can President Biden stay out of the debate, when the filibuster is preventing him from keeping the promises he made to the American people, how is that possible?” Aimee Allison, president of She the People said in a “POLITICO” article written by Laura Barrón-López. 

The filibuster, though it may be understood to protect the voice of the Senate minority, as well as promote prudence, ultimately strips an appalling amount of American’s representation and memorializes the endorsement of Jim Crow.

The filibuster was not an original intention by constitutional framers, even though many supporters of the institution adhere to that assertion. Originally, Senate rules contained the “previous question” motion, according to Sarah Binder in an article for “Brookings” titled “The History of the Filibuster.” That is the same motion that allows the House of Representatives to operate based on a simple majority. 

This motion was removed from the Senate in the early 19th  century per recommendation from then Vice President Aaron Burr to “clean up the rule books,” according to Binder. The first filibuster did not happen until over three decades after the possibility opened up. Most subsequent filibusters have been performed after the Civil War, in an effort to curb Civil Rights and other various reforms. 

Supporters purport that abolition of the filibuster would eradicate the necessary and lengthy deliberation needed “to reflect and to ensure that the risk of new abuses is not worse than the evils it is trying to solve,” Rachel Bovard said in an article for the “Heritage Foundation” titled “Why Preserving the Legislative Filibuster Is Critical for Conservatives.” 

However, the filibuster has been amended before. In 2013, it was amended to not apply to appointees in federal courts, and in 2017, it was applied to Supreme Court nominees as well. 

Delaying legislative abolition of the filibuster has resulted in catastrophic delays. The 110th Congress (2007-2009) had a “record-low 2.8% of bills introduced,” according to Caroline Frederickson in a study for the Brennan Center for Justice. That is a 66% decrease from 2005-2006. This repression of ideas has resulted in a plethora of executive orders made to curtail the arduous Congress proceedings, stealing from the body’s core function of deliberation.

Filibuster supporters commend the option as a way of finding common ground within the parties. 

“If a majority party knows they need to garner 60 votes to end debate on a bill, the necessity of working across the aisle, negotiating and finding areas of agreement becomes imperative, rather than optional,” Bovard said. 

Proponents of the filibuster also recognize the massive shift that would occur if the Senate were to alter its rules. They say the Senate would return to being a smaller reflection of the House of Representatives: applying the use of a simple majority to consider public issues. But, if those assertions were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this today. 

If the filibuster had once before opened up the ground to allow minority members to debate their points and encourage bipartisan support, those days are over. Now, “The simple threat of objection simply ends all discussion,” Frederickson said. Additionally, the Senate would not be a mere reflection of the House of Representatives if the filibuster were abolished, it is already “minoritarian,” according to Frederickson. 

As of right now, 39 million Americans in California are represented by two individuals in the Senate, the same amount of representation as the under one million Americans receive from Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont, etc. The minority voices receive more than their fair share of representation.

The Civil Rights bill of 1964 was filibustered for 74 days. 74 days. The abuse of this Senate rule has real, far-reaching impacts on Americans, undermining democracy. Before this, in the late 19th century, Democrats used a series of filibusters to try and remove the presence of federal troops at elections, the only way Black Americans then could safely vote. Anti-civil rights Senators continued by obstructing anti-lynching bills; bills prohibiting poll taxes; and bills prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and voting. 

As mentioned before, the use of the filibuster does not only affect the Legislative branch but the Executive as well. 

“The executive branch has increasingly moved away from legislative initiatives because of Senate obstruction, the filibuster continues to undermine a real democracy,” Frederickson said.

This arcane, and frankly accidently adaptation to the Senate rules has taken more from the Senate than it has given. Removal of the filibuster would encourage new ideas, restore communication without the fear of being shut down, and strengthen the democracy we have all seen come under attack as recently as Jan. 6. If the Senate could change its rules before, it can change it now for the furthering of an equitable, open political discourse.