Filibuster FAQs: What Is This Senate Procedure and Why Does It Matter for You?

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By Elle Meyers

March 26, 2021

While it’s easy to tune out all the political noise, the future of this Senate procedure does directly affect you and your family.

Whether you follow national politics or not, you’ve probably heard about the biggest debate in Washington, DC, right now: what to do about the filibuster. And while it’s easy to tune out all that noise, the future of this Senate procedure does directly affect you and your family.

After successfully passing a widely popular coronavirus relief package to help the nation recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Democrats are effectively now stuck on how to move forward on President Joe Biden’s sweeping policy agenda, which includes expanding voting rights. That’s because of the filibuster, a Senate cloture rule with a racist history.

Here’s everything you need to know about this longtime procedure that often stands in the way of significant change. 

What is the filibuster?

The filibuster is a rule in the Senate that allows any one senator to stop a bill from being voted on. To begin a filibuster, a senator must give notice that they oppose the legislation; usually this is done by standing up and saying “I object.” In the past, lawmakers had to continuously speak on the Senate floor to delay or stop a bill from being voted on. In 2013, Sen. Ted Cruz worked to delay a vote on the Affordable Care Act. To fill time and keep talking, he read from Dr. Seuss’ book Green Eggs and Ham.

To override the filibuster, a bill needs 60 votes, which requires some level of bipartisan support. It is impossible for any party to override a filibuster without support from colleagues in other parties. 

Today, it’s easy to implement a filibuster; any senator can begin the process simply by sending an email

The filibuster has popped into the news a lot lately because lawmakers are pushing to change or end the rule in the Senate. It prevents a lot of legislation from being passed. It’s easy to use and hard to overturn. Changing the filibuster so that it’s more difficult to use would encourage faster progress in the Senate. 

Why should you care about the filibuster?

The filibuster rule also has a tangible impact on the average American. There are a number of popular policies that could be stopped or killed entirely due to the procedure because Republicans refuse to negotiate on them. They include things like increasing the minimum wage to $15, gun safety reform, voting right, and equal rights for marginalized groups. 

“I want to get things done. I want to get them done consistent with what we promised the American people,” President Joe Biden said of filibuster reform on Thursday. 

Who is for and against filibuster reform and why?

Many Democrats want to see the filibuster rule changed or ended completely, but they are also willing to approve incremental change. A half step from ending it completely would be to bring back the talking filibuster. That requires the senator who is opposed to the legislation to talk on the Senate floor without stopping. This change would still delay legislation but it couldn’t delay it indefinitely. 

In the past, all filibusters required lawmakers to continuously speak. However, lawmakers started making changes to filibuster rules in the 1970s, like lowering the supermajority vote requirement from 67 votes to 60 and doing away with the talking filibuster. Instead, senators began the practice of saying “I object,” to begin a filibuster. They also altered the rules so that lawmakers could continue work on other pieces of legislation—instead of grinding everything to a standstill. 

Even Democrats aren’t completely sold on ending the filibuster. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have both said they would oppose any effort to end the filibuster altogether. 

President Joe Biden is in favor of filibuster reform and has said he would support a smaller change instead of pushing to end the procedure right away. He has said he is in favor of re-implementing the talking filibuster.

Filibuster FAQs: What Is This Senate Procedure and Why Does It Matter for You?

What noteworthy legislation has already passed the House in 2021 but has little hope of getting 60 votes in the Senate?

There are a few important pieces of legislation that have little hope of passing without filibuster reform. 

For the People Act (HR1/S1)

This legislation could have a large impact on voting rights and election campaigns in the United States. It would restore the Voting Rights Act, which protects Americans’ right to vote and prevents voter suppression tactics. It would also change campaign finance laws so that money has less influence on politics and implement additional safeguards against foreign election interference. Additionally, it would end congressional gerrymandering, which makes it easier for one party to stay in power over another.  

Protecting the Right to Organize Act (HR842)

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act would strengthen workers’ rights to organize and form unions. It would also add penalties for companies that violate labor laws. The act would be the first significant change for workers in the last 80 years. 

George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 (HR 1280)

This bill would ban the use of police chokeholds and in some cases ban no-knock warrants. It would also mandate data collection and redirect funding to community policing programs. Additionally it would change qualified immunity for law enforcement, which makes it easier to pursue allegations of police misconduct. 

Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 (HR 8)

This law would implement new background check requirements to transfer a firearm between people, unless one party is a licensed gun dealer, manufacturer, or importer. The change would not apply to certain firearm transfers, such as a gift between spouses. 

How has the filibuster been used to attempt to block civil rights?

Although the filibuster goes as far back as the early 1800s, its recent history is entwined with the fight against racism and discrimination. As political scientist Sarah Binder wrote for the Washington Post, of the 30 measures she and her colleague Steven Smith identified that failed because of the filibuster between 1917 and 1994, half addressed civil rights. 

Women almost didn’t win the right to vote thanks to the filibuster rule. The legislation was brought up for a vote in the spring of 1919, but lawmakers blocked the vote and delayed it until it was finally passed on June 4, 1919.

As Kevin Kruse, a historian of race and American politics at Princeton University, told Vox: The filibuster is “a tool used overwhelmingly by racists.”

In 1957, for example, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond set the record for filibustering when he talked continuously for more than 24 hours against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Later on in the nation’s history the filibuster reared its head again when lawmakers considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Southern senators launched a filibuster that delayed the vote for 60 days.




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