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How to fix the Senate without abolishing the filibuster


The Senate filibuster is one of the most unfortunate accidents in American history.

In 1805, fresh off the duel where he killed Alexander Hamilton, Vice President Aaron Burr returned to the Senate and proposed streamlining the body’s rules by eliminating something called the “previous question motion,” a process that was rarely invoked in the early years of the Senate.

As Sarah Binder, a Brookings Institution expert on Congress and a professor at George Washington University, explained in 2010 testimony to the Senate Rules Committee, Burr’s intent was to produce a “cleaner rule book” that wasn’t too thick with duplicative procedures. And he thought the previous question motion was the kind of superfluous rule that could be eliminated.

Unfortunately for the nation, the previous question motion wasn’t the least bit superfluous. This motion turned out to be the only way to force the Senate to move off a particular topic. When the Senate took up Burr on his call, it allowed senators to lock the Senate into endless, pointless debate — halting progress even if a majority of the Senate wished to move forward to a vote.

The filibuster was born.

Since then, the rules permitting filibusters have been changed many times — and with increasing frequency.

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson successfully urged the Senate to create a process, known as “cloture,” which would allow a two-thirds majority of the Senate to break a filibuster and bring a matter to the Senate for a final vote. The number of votes necessary to end a filibuster, whether on a piece of legislation or on a confirmation vote, was reduced to three-fifths of the Senate (ordinarily 60 votes ) in 1975.

In the 1970s, Congress created a process known as “budget reconciliation,” which allows many taxing and spending bills to become law with a simple majority vote, bypassing the filibuster. In 1996, Congress enacted the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn recent federal agency regulations without having to deal with the filibuster.

And in the present-day Senate, filibuster reforms have been enacted fairly often. In 2011, a narrow Senate majority voted to strip away some of the minority’s power to force votes on amendments to a bill. In 2013, the Senate enacted a temporary measure that limited the minority’s ability to delay confirmation votes once the Senate agreed to end debate on a particular nominee, and a version of this rule was made permanent in 2019 (though nothing is truly permanent because a future Senate could always change this rule again). The Senate voted to allow non-Supreme Court nominees to be confirmed with a simple majority vote in 2013, and it voted to allow Supreme Court justices to be confirmed by a simple majority in 2017.

Indeed, this brief account of the filibuster’s history drastically undersells how often Congress creates exceptions. In her book Exceptions to the Rule: The Politics of Filibuster Limitations in the US Senate, the Brookings Institution’s Molly Reynolds writes that “a careful review of the historical record has identified 161” provisions of law that prevent “some future piece of legislation from being filibustered on the floor of the Senate.” This includes legislation fast-tracking votes on trade negotiations, expediting votes on military base closures, and allowing Congress to bypass the filibuster for certain regulatory and budgetary matters.

Amanda Northrop/Vox

Filibuster reforms, in other words, are quite normal.

Congress took its first steps to curtail the filibuster more than a century ago, and the modern Senate has frequently placed limits on the filibuster. If the current Senate were to make additional changes to the rules governing the filibuster, that would be very much in line with the Senate’s recent practice.

Democratic senators like Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema…



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