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The Filibuster

Week 28: February 1, 2021

In the wake of the election, there has been intense debate around whether or not to do away with the filibuster in the Senate. The filibuster is when a minority (41%) of senators block the vote on legislation. In order for a bill to get passed, it needs to have a simple majority’s support (51% of Senate). However, this approval happens only if a bill gets a vote, which requires a supermajority (60% of Senate) to happen. Essentially, a bill can have enough support to get passed, but not enough support for voting to happen in the first place. Many people argue that this is the reason for the Senate’s gridlock and inaction on so much legislation.

Here is a brief video that explains how the filibuster works.

The filibuster is a major obstacle to achieving Biden’s agenda, as the Democratically-controlled senate has a majority only with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris. The level of partisanship in the Senate means that it is unlikely that significant legislation will receive the 60% support needed to get a vote, therefore blocking progress.

The simplest way to get rid of the filibuster would be to directly amend the text of Senate Rule 22, which requires 60 votes to end debate. The problem with this solution is that a supermajority would have to agree to hold a vote on changing Rule 22, which with our current Senate configuration is extremely unlikely.

There is a more complicated but likely scenario for eliminating the filibuster which has colloquially become known as the “nuclear option.” It would allow the Senate to override Rule 22 by changing the way it is interpreted rather than the law itself. This change would only require a simple majority’s support and is therefore within the capabilities of the Senate.

It was first used in 2013 by Democrats to dictate that only a simple majority was needed to confirm Obama’s judicial nominees for the D.C. circuit court (watch Harry Reid call for the nuclear option). In 2014, Democrats were able to confirm 89 nominees (twice the annual average). However, in 2017, GOP Senators used the precedent set by democrats to help get Trump’s supreme court nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh (and later, Amy Coney Barrett), confirmed.

Getting rid of the filibuster would render the minority party practically powerless, discouraging bipartisan cooperation but also allowing more progress to be made. For these reasons, it is extremely controversial, with politicians radically switching their views with each power shift within the Senate. When Democrats were the minority, they nearly unanimously fought for the retention of the filibuster. Today, with the Democrats in slim control, the roles are reversed. with conservatives fighting for the status quo. Implementing the nuclear option may be necessary if this Administration wants to accomplish its goals, but at what cost for the future?

Therefore, we must analyze whether we truly support getting rid of the filibuster because we believe the current ability of a minority to block progress is undemocratic, or if we only support the removal of the filibuster because it gives a certain party more power. If it is the latter, we must ask ourselves whether it is worth the future consequences should the Senate swing into another party's control. While the filibuster has created a slow system in which progress is difficult, it also promotes a certain level of bipartisanship and cooperation that may be lost with its removal.

There are positives and negative aspects to getting rid of the filibuster, and both action and inaction will have significant repercussions. However, with extreme partisanship polarizing our country, perhaps removing the filibuster is the only way to move forward in the short term, and we will, as a nation, need to address the larger ideological divide for a more productive and democratic future.

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