The Senate Filibuster: Its Origins and Mechanics, and Why It’s Likely an Insurmountable Barrier to Voting Legislation

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the fifth time in recent months, Senate Republicans are expected to block Democrats’ sweeping voting bills later Wednesday this week using a lengthy delay tactic that could halt a bill.

Democrats lament — this time — that Senate rules give excessive power to the minority in the chamber. Yet they are not alone with their complaints about the tactic known as the filibuster, which has been used to block legislation since the 1800s.
Here’s a look at the filibuster, what it does and how it works.

What is the filibuster rule: Unlike the House, the Senate places few restrictions on the right to speak for lawmakers. But senators can use the chamber’s rules to bar or block votes.

These procedural moves, collectively referred to as filibusters, were in part extolled in the public mind by the 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which James Stewart portrayed a senator speaking on the floor of the room until he was exhausted.

In a real-life version of it, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina stood at his desk for 24 hours and 18 minutes, speaking continuously against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. That is the longest senate speech by a single senator for which such records exist.

Democrats say the GOP’s current embrace of the tactic of blocking the progress of their voting rights bill echoes that era. But there are important differences.

Most importantly, unlike in the 1960s, senators can usually tell or publicly announce to Senate leaders that they will filibuster a bill and no lengthy speeches are needed. The system now allows the Senate to do other business even if a filibuster is being waged.

How it came: The term “filibuster” began to appear in the mid-19th century, derived from a Dutch term for “freebooter” and the Spanish “filibusteros,” which were used to describe pirates, Senate records show.

The filibuster is not in the Constitution and it was not part of the Founding Fathers’ vision for the Senate.

It was created accidentally after Vice President Aaron Burr complained in 1805 that the room’s rulebook was redundant and too complicated, according to historians. In a rule rewrite that followed, the senators deleted a provision that allowed the debate to be interrupted. The filibuster was developed as a blocking tactic several decades later.

By the 1920s, it was part of an established roadmap to suspend civil rights legislation.

How filibusters end: Complaints about the senate’s snails’ pace are as old as the republic, with records from the first congress in 1789 indicating senators were annoyed by lengthy speeches that got in the way of proceedings.

But after filibusters became a tactic for unrestricted debate, the Senate voted in 1917 to let senators end them with a two-thirds vote.

In 1975, the Senate reduced that margin to the current three-fifths majority, which in the 100-member chamber means it takes 60 votes to end filibusters against almost all types of legislation. Thanks to the rule changes of recent years, only simple majorities are needed to end the nomination delays.

Filibusters have become routine against legislation over the past two decades, frustrating both sides. Before that, many of the most famous filibusters had to do with voting rights:

• A 10-day filibuster in 1891 halted a bill that would have appointed federal observers to oversee all phases of the election, a move vehemently opposed by southern senators, which denied blacks the right to vote. according to the reports of the congress.
• Confederate senators successfully passed an anti-lynching bill in 1922. They repeated that in 1938 with a 30-day filibuster.
• In 1942, a five-day filibuster by Southern senators killed a bill that would have abolished poll taxes, which were used to disenfranchise black voters. Similar legislation continued to encourage filibuster challenges until poll taxes were abolished in 1964.
• On June 10, 1964, after more than 14 hours of inaugural speech, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia ended a 60-day filibuster. Minutes later, the Senate began voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end segregation. It had become clear that backers had enough votes to cut off the debate over a filibuster of civil rights legislation for the first time in Senate history.

Today’s relevance: By characterizing the debate over their current voting laws as the civil rights struggles of this era, Democrats say their bill is needed to counter a Republican push for new state-level laws, which Democrats say will make it harder to vote. and in some cases electoral management more sensitive to political influence.

The Democrats’ bill would create national electoral standards that would trump state-level GOP laws enacted in the name of election security, such as restrictions on postal voting or strict requirements for photo ID.

It also aims to reduce the influence of big money in politics and limit partisan considerations in drawing congressional districts. It would restore the Department of Justice’s ability to monitor election laws in states with a history of discrimination.

How to bypass the filibuster: In the 50-50 Senate, Democrats don’t have enough votes to break a filibuster unless 10 Republicans join them.

But they could change the Senate rules by invoking a so-called nuclear option, which would then allow them to make changes to the filibuster by a simple majority of 51 votes. Both sides have used it to change filibuster rules surrounding the confirmation of presidential candidates.

Many Democrats have urged the party to go down this road, although they do not have unanimous support in their caucus. Their two most conservative senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, oppose such changes, arguing that the country would be better served if Congress can find two-pronged solutions.

Keywords: Alabama football coach Nick Saban and other sports legends with ties to West Virginia urge Joe Manchin to act for voting rights bill

Why Manchin and Sinema are against removing or weakening the filibuster: Manchin and Sinema also argue that changes in the filibuster will come back to haunt Democrats once Republicans gain control of Congress and the White House.

One day, they warn, it could allow the GOP to pass an agenda with limited minority ownership — and usher in an era of drastic reversal in federal policy every time one party gains control of the White House. and both chambers of Congress.

Republican Opposition to Voting Legislation: Senate Republicans are unanimously against the Democratic legislation, describing it as a federal override that would infringe on states’ ability to hold their own elections.

They deride Democrats’ claim that the bill is needed to patch electoral vulnerabilities exposed by Donald Trump’s attempts to overthrow the 2020 election as “nephysteria.” They note that much of the current legislation was written years earlier.

From the archives (March 2021): Voting rights intensify as a partisan battleground, with Democrats pushing HR 1 and Republicans changing state-level electoral procedures

See also (May 2021): ‘Big Lie’ Loyalty Divides Republicans Into Trump Loyalists And A Cheney-Romney-Kinzinger Wing

Republicans have also been quick to point out that Democrats vehemently opposed changes to the filibuster when they were outnumbered, routinely using it to block legislation when Trump was president.