Jim Crawford: Fileting the filibuster

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 15, 2021

The Senate filibuster was not borne from the Constitution, nor was it birthed with the creation of the Senate.

It was, historically speaking, nothing more than a simple mistake. When, in 1806, the Senate killed the “previous question motion” used to allow a simple majority to end debate, it created, oops, the opportunity to talk a proposal to death.

Though not used until the 1830s, the killing of the “previous question” was going to have unintended consequences.

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Before the Civil War, the filibuster was very rarely used, in large part, because the Senate was accustomed to working with a simple majority vote. But as the nation grew and more attention was given to current issues, the Senate became more politically polarized, injecting powerful influence on the most important issues of the day, like civil rights and election law, the filibuster became meaningful.

But killing the filibuster became nearly impossible as the minority party always opposed the idea of reducing its power. The compromise became the invention of the “cloture” rule, requiring a supermajority to close debate.

That rule magnified the power of the filibuster, allowing a sole senator to kill a bill unless a supermajority overrode the filibuster. All this movement away from the Senate originally using a simple majority vote, was enhanced yet again by the creation of the “virtual filibuster” no longer even requiring the actual speech tied to the term.

The product of this series of unintended consequences has been the inability of the Senate to pass any bills other than naming libraries and bridges. The actual passage of bills through the Senate went from 25 percent (1957-1959) to 2.5 percent by 2010. Not surprisingly, with the Senate nearly closed but for partisan infighting, public support for the Senate and Congress overall, has fallen to the lowest historical levels.

And this is the Senate that President Joe Biden is reluctant to restore to effectiveness by ending the filibuster once and for all. It is a Senate where good ideas come to die.

In the last Congress, with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, as majority leader fully 395 bills passed in the House came to the Senate where McConnell alone said, “We’re not going to pass those.”

What he preciously meant was, as majority leader, he would not even allow consideration of 395 bills the House passed.

Today, McConnell having lost the Senate majority, is a chief advocate of the virtual filibuster, using a single senator’s objection to require 60 votes instead of 51 to pass any bill.

President Biden might offer that Senate Democrats could work with Senate Republicans to gain Republican votes on bills for the benefit of the American people. Biden would be wrong for two reasons; first, because Republicans who cannot or will not admit Biden won the 2020 election fairly can hardly be thoughtful partners in anything; second, the few traditional Republican Senators remaining are, almost all, not even attempting to win re-election because only Trump extremists can have a role in the Republican Party today.

The Biden administration will soon face a reality check, either kill the filibuster or accept that Democrats will be unable to pass legislation for the American people.
America needs federal election protections for all states; we need a coherent immigration policy; we need to end the debt accumulated by college students that cripples their economic advancement after school. We need these things and so much more, but we will never get what America needs from a Senate that will never pass 2 percent of the legislation it considers.

The filibuster is not sacred, it was a simple mistake magnified by additional judgment flaws. Return the Senate to its roots…kill the filibuster.

Jim Crawford is a retired educator, political enthusiast and award-winning columnist living here in the Tri-State.