Nothing Romantic About It: A History of the Filibuster

The United States Senate is grossly undemocratic…even without the filibuster.

Today, the Senate moved to limit the use of the filibuster when it comes to certain presidential appointments.

The filibuster is a mechanism within the United States Senate which allows a minority of Senators to continue the debate and, as a result, prevent a bill from being voted on. Like the Electoral College, I am fascinated by the filibuster as a political scientist. It is part of the twisted chess-like game which is American politics. Like the Electoral College, it is an aspect of American politics that I cannot defend.

Timothy Noah provides an insightful and devastating look at the historical development of the filibuster in this brief commentary that he delivered in 2010 on CBS New Sunday Morning:

Take a look at the clip. It is only 2 minutes and 43 seconds in length.

While I also blame Frank Capra for romanticizing the filibuster within American culture, there is plenty of blame on both sides of the aisle in Congress for why this arcane procedural rule still torments the law-making process.

Unlike the electoral college, the filibuster is not etched in the the United States Constitution. The Senate can get rid of it. It does not need approval, consent, or input from the U.S. House or the White House.

The Senate has move a step in the right direction. It is time to get rid of it all together.

Categories: Blog

3 replies »

  1. I agree with every word, Chris–and I’m actually hopeful that the Republicans will remain enraged enough by this move that they’re go ahead and get rid of the remaining filibuster rules (primarily for Supreme Court nominees) when they next have the majority. It’d be win-win!

  2. Regrettably, I cannot concur with the sentiment behind your polemic. The US Senate is not democratic (by which, I understand you to mean “universal suffrage representative government”. It was never intended, nor should it be, “democratic”, in the sense that it is supposed to be merely an echoing of *vox populi*.

    The founders ( I do not capitalize) were grounded in real education, and not the vo-tec drivel that passes for education today (perhaps corporations find managing technically expert ignoramuses beneficial). Hence they knew that vox populi too often degenerates into mobbers lynching the innocent. (For which, I refer you to the deaths of Socrates and Joseph Smith.)

    The Senate, as a body, and to a lesser extent, the House of Representatives, was deliberately designed with obstruction in mind — to slow the process down, to allow the passions of the moment to fade and for cooler heads to prevail.

    That this obstruction may be inconvenient to you or your cause(s), is irrelevant. Ditto for the Electoral College. If you care to really look into it, it provides a greater voice for the individual (holy and sacrosanct individualism) than being submerged in a great roaring mass of the whole people. Herewith is a link to a proof of it all.

    I realize that this goes against the populism which many people seem to confuse and conflate with “democracy”, but I would be remiss were I not to remind you that the “cure” for corrupt politics of a century back was the Primary system. Which made intra-party politics a matter of popularity and money and appeal to the worst angels of our nature.Which led by inevitable process to the fatally gerrymandered districts which we enjoy today.

    And, I thank Frank Capra for seeing something that seems to have eluded you. Namely that the majority can easily be wrong, and if allowed to enact their prejudice, can easily damage the entire nation.

    Finally, I leave you with this — one lone person can make a difference — by filibuster, as it were.

  3. Agreed! Hear hear!

    The health of our democratic institutions is crucial—for better or worse the House and Senate are our democratic institutions, our deliberative, collaborative, democratically-elected “people’s house(s)”—and when they are weak, the less representative, more authoritarian parts of our system become strong, filling the vacuum. Simple physics, and inevitable given our constitutional system that relies on checks and balances. The national security apparatus and “unitary executive” run amuck without Congressional oversight and functionality (and credibility) to check them.

    In this recent essay,
    I argue that procedural power grabs like the Hastert rule and the filibuster-ing of everything are endangering our system of checks and balances, and democratic institutions writ large.

    We need a new term for rules (e.g. the Hastert rule) that violate the spirit of the constitution if not its letter: I propose “counter-constitutional”


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