Industry Government Affairs Update the April 2024 issue

What’s the Big Deal About the Filibuster?

The Senate filibuster has a controversial 200-year history, with a cameo by Aaron Burr.
By Blaire Bartlett Posted on April 1, 2024

Senators use the filibuster to delay or block a vote or a confirmation. A bill in front of the Senate requires a 51-vote majority to pass, but first it must achieve cloture, which is when debate on a measure ends. Sixty senators must agree to cloture.

When thinking of the filibuster, many people picture Jimmy Stewart from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and his 24-hour crusade to defend himself and call attention to “lost causes” and the dastardly Senator Paine. While Hollywood’s version of the filibuster is entertaining, the mechanism in real life is more complex.

Under the original Senate rules of 1789, it was possible to end debate with only 51 votes, but doing so would cause the measure under consideration to be dropped altogether. This was called the “previous question” rule. When Vice President Aaron Burr presided over the Senate in 1805, he argued that the previous question rule was duplicative of a motion for indefinite postponement. The Senate agreed and stopped using the rule when it adopted new procedures in 1806.

By the 1880s, almost every session of Congress featured at least one frustrating filibuster, sometimes over consequential issues like election law or civil rights. Senators’ annoyance was so great that in 1917 they passed the cloture rule, which made it possible to break a filibuster with a two-thirds majority vote. In 1975, the Senate reduced the requirement to 60 votes.

The filibuster remains controversial and could be eliminated—possibly by updating language in the cloture rule, though such a measure would also require enough votes and itself could be subject to a filibuster.

 Some argue the filibuster is antiquated, prevents the Senate from advancing legislation and obstructs the people’s will. Others believe the filibuster protects the rights of the political minority, encourages compromise and checks the executive branch’s power.

So was Aaron Burr right? Or is it time to reform a rule from more than 200 years ago to make way for “majority rule”?

Blaire Bartlett Vice President, Government and Political Affairs, The Council Read More

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