The President's Column: Why the Filibuster has Got to Go

February 26, 2022

A group of senators representing fewer than one-fifth of the people in this country routinely use the filibuster to prevent the passage of bills with broad public support.

GG_feat5.jpgFor months now, President Biden has been facing negative headlines, calling him out for failing to enact his ground-breaking legislative agenda.

But with Democrat Chuck Schumer leading the Senate majority, why are the progressive bills getting stuck there? What gives?

First, of course, is the obvious: After the 2020 elections, Democrats and Republicans each held 50 seats.

What gives the Democrats the “majority” is Vice President Kamala Harris who presides over the Senate and thus casts any tie-breaking vote.

This means the Democrats cannot afford anything less than total unity in the Senate -- if they want to pass any legislation.

But there is more: Regardless of who holds the balance of power, the way the seats are allocated in the Senate is already deeply inequitable.

Wyoming and North Dakota, for example, have a population of 1.3 million people between them, but together they send four Senators to Washington—the same number as California and New York, two states that have a combined population of nearly 60 million. Because most Republican senators are elected by small-population, largely rural states, Democrats in the current Senate represent over 20 million more people than Republicans do. And yet each party holds the same number of seats in the Senate.

Or to put it in another way, the 26 least populous states are home to just 17 percent of the U.S. population.

This means that a group of senators representing fewer than one-fifth of the people in this country can and does use the filibuster to prevent the passage of bills with broad public support.

What is the filibuster? It is a loosely defined term for action designed to prolong debate and delay or prevent a vote on a bill. It used to require marathon speech-making. Now the Republicans have turned it into a practice where the leader of the opposition—the GOP’s Sen. Mitch McConnell—only needs to signal he has 41 votes to defeat a bill. This is something he does on nearly all Democratic legislation.

Even with this razor-thin majority, the Democrats should be able to pass President Biden’s program— including voting rights protections, expanded Medicare, children’s tax credits, drug price controls, college tuition help, making the wealthy pay their share of taxes, and tackling climate change. But instead, the Republicans have been shamelessly using the filibuster to defeat these much-needed reforms.

The filibuster has a long and ugly history. For years it was used to block landmark civil rights legislation.

Southern senators used it to kill antilynching legislation numerous times over the course of the 20th century— in fact, because of this obstruction the Senate didn’t pass an anti-lynching bill for the first time until 2018.

(Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) holds the record for the longest speaking filibuster in Senate history in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act: He spoke nearly uninterrupted for 24 hours and 18 minutes). And collectively, opponents of civil rights legislation filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act for 60 working days, the longest combined filibuster in history.

Without the filibuster, the Dream Act would have passed in 2010.

Congress and the White House were then controlled by Democrats, so when the House passed the Dream Act and sent it over to the Senate, Dreamers hoped that they would soon obtain permanent relief from deportation. Instead, the Dream Act was blocked because, with a vote of 55-41, it didn’t get the necessary 60 votes to advance.

Donald Trump may have been out of office for more than a year, but our work is only just beginning.

Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, but to pass progressive legislation, we need to abolish the filibuster.

As the Senate’s rules exist today, Republicans in the Senate will still have the power to block every single progressive priority.

It's simple: None of the progressive issues that Democratic candidates and congressional leaders are discussing today will become law unless we do something about the filibuster.

1199 Magazine: January - February 2022