Congressional gridlock has become commonplace in Washington D.C., leaving some 2020 Democrats leading calls to ditch the longstanding tradition of the Senate filibuster.
While some see abolishing the filibuster as a way to clear roadblocks when pushing through legislation, others see it as a dangerous path to head down.
Here are five things to know about the debate surrounding the filibuster.
What is a filibuster?
Just like the famous scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a filibuster is a tool used by Senators to block legislation they oppose by refusing to yield the floor to allow a vote. The Senate believes it is vital to allow all members time to thoroughly discuss a piece of legislation meaning that bills cannot move forward until the filibuster ends.
The only way the Senate can force a filibuster to stop is by having three-fifths of the chamber vote to invoke cloture.
The filibuster is the strongest weapon the minority party has to influence legislation, though Senators have filibustered legislation from their own party. In the past 12 years alone, the filibuster has been used around 600 times to stop legislation.
Currently, Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, but some Democratic senators still want to tear down the filibuster even though it is a tool of the minority party.
Why do some people want to get rid of it?
Although it is a tool for the minority party to ensure that the American people fully understand the opposition, the filibuster is also a major hassle for the legislative process.
The filibuster was designed to guarantee that all opposition to a bill was heard before a vote took place, but current rules allow a filibuster to be used to stop debate before it even happens because Senators can filibuster before the floor debate is held.
Because a filibuster requires at least 60 votes to end, it’s difficult to get the two parties on the same page to shut it down, creating roadblocks for legislation that could otherwise sail through the Senate.
Who supports abolishing the filibuster?
Several 2020 Democrats have made it clear they want to get rid of the filibuster. Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said she would support abolishing the filibuster “if there’s gonna be the obstructionist kind of tactics we’ve seen.” Given that the filibuster is designed to be obstructionist, it looks like a Harris White House supports the change. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Ind.) has made similar statements.
As IJR previously reported, abolishing the filibuster is a cornerstone of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) plan to impose gun control because she knows many Republican senators would try to block her efforts to limit gun access.
Additionally, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently wrote an op-ed calling for the filibuster to end altogether, claiming the filibuster is “suffocating the will of the American people.”
While he was majority leader, Reid pushed through one of the largest filibuster reforms in recent history by changing the filibuster rules for presidential appointments, like Supreme Court Justices.
Who opposes abolishing it?
Reid’s decision to change filibuster rules for presidential appointments is likely one reason many others are hesitant to abolish the filibuster altogether. While it worked for Reid when Democrats were in the majority, it blew up in his face when Republicans took the majority back.
Because it only took 50 votes to confirm presidential nominees, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has used the so-called “nuclear option” to push through many controversial nominees, including Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Education Secretary Betsy De Vos.
How do Republicans feel about the filibuster?
Although Republicans are the majority party and could benefit from taking the filibuster away from Democrats, many Republicans support the limiting the power of government, even if it’s their own power.
But while Republicans haven’t made any moves to get rid of the filibuster, they also haven’t given back the strength they got from Reid’s decision to limit debate on presidential nominees. McConnell gleefully acknowledges that he warned Democrats they would regret making such a decision, but he hasn’t tried to restore the filibuster either.
Republicans who do support ending the filibuster, including President Donald Trump, argue that Democrats might do it anyway, so the GOP should just enjoy the power while they have it.
For now, it doesn’t look like any immediate changes to the filibuster are in the works.