Q. What exactly is a filibuster?
A. A filibuster is an attempt to stop or delay action in the U.S. Senate on a piece of legislation or nomination by debating it at length, offering numerous procedural motions, or any other delaying action. It is often thought of as one senator speaking nonstop on the Senate floor, but filibusters can involve multiple parliamentary procedures.
Q. Is there any way to break a filibuster?
A. A filibuster can be broken by a special procedure to limit debate called cloture. Under the Senate rules, it takes 60 votes to invoke cloture. Once 60 votes are reached, debate can continue only for another 30 hours. Because it takes only 60 out of 100 votes to invoke cloture, floor business that has broad bipartisan support can still be considered despite a filibuster.
Q. Why is the filibuster necessary?
A. The U.S. Senate has been called the greatest deliberative body in the world because it was specifically designed to proceed at a measured pace and to guarantee that the rights of the minority party are protected from what political philosophers called the "tyranny of the majority." The design was based on experiences in the states during the early years of our country. James Madison said in his famous paper Federalist Number 10, "Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." Even staggering the terms of senators was partly done to prevent temporary majorities from acting hastily and trampling on the rights of the minority. Senators have staggered six-year terms, resulting in one-third of senators up for re-election every two years, unlike the House of Representatives, where all members are up for re-election every two years. Because only one-third of senators are up for re-election at once, it is less likely that one party can sweep the election and gain control of the entire legislative branch of government in one election.
So, the filibuster protects the rights of senators in the minority party by ensuring they have the opportunity to introduce amendments and engage in extensive debate. The possibility of a filibuster forces the majority party to engage with the minority. History tells us that in its early days, the Senate didn't pass legislation or act on a piece of business until there was a consensus that various viewpoints had been heard and considered. The Congressional Record documents long hours of debate and consideration of amendments. At the dawn of the 20th century, in response to the idea among some senators that the Senate was slow to act on various issues of the day, the Senate changed the rules to allow a supermajority to cut off debate, which at that time required the vote of two-thirds of senators.
Q. Some say the filibuster is abused and slows down Senate business. Is that true?
A. I often hear the opposite criticism, that weighty matters are being brought up and voted on before people have an opportunity to understand what is at stake and to weigh in with their elected representatives. And, in recent years, the majority leader has used the power of his position to block minority party members from participating in the legislative process by preventing the offering of amendments and claiming that any attempt to debate or offer amendments is a filibuster.
Based on information from the Congressional Research Service, the current majority leader has cut off all minority amendments and, in turn, Senate debate, more than the last six majority leaders combined. He has moved to shut down debate on the same day measures are brought up for consideration nearly three times more, on average, than the last six majority leaders. He also has bypassed the committee process, which is the process by which almost all bills have gone to the Senate floor under every previous majority leader, more than 40 times.
When one party has 60 members, or nearly 60 members, of the U.S. Senate, as was the case during the last two years, there is a temptation to set aside the Senate tradition of engaging the other party and to run the Senate more like the House of Representatives. Now that the party split in the Senate is not so lopsided, it should return to its more traditional practice of allowing differing views to be heard and considered. Each senator represents the views of a large number of Americans, and those constituents deserve to have their voices heard in the legislative process.