Filibuster Talking Points

What is the filibuster?

  • The filibuster is a simple procedural mechanism that allows the minority party to block legislation from advancing in the Senate. The filibuster is the ability to keep debate open on a legislative item until the Senate votes to close it. Closing debate requires 60 votes, instead of the usual 50, and if you don’t have 60 votes, you can’t move to final voting.

  • The filibuster is inherently undemocratic, and not required under the Constitution. In recent years, it has been weaponized to a greater extent than ever before by Republicans in order to kill landmark pieces of legislation. That’s why the Founding Fathers purposely designed the Senate to be majoritarian – they didn’t want a situation where “a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority.

How has the filibuster been used to block progress in the past?

  • The filibuster was used for years to block anti-lynching legislation. Southern Democrats used it to kill anti-lynching legislation numerous times over the course of the 20th century — in fact, because of this obstruction the Senate didn’t pass an anti-lynching bill for the first time until 2018.

  • Conservatives used it (unsuccessfully) to try to block civil rights legislation. Sen. Strom Thurmond holds the record for the longest speaking filibuster in Senate history in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act (he spoke nearly uninterrupted for 24 hours and 18 minutes). A few years later, opponents of civil rights legislation filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act for 60 working days, the longest combined filibuster in history.

  • The filibuster continues to be used to block gun violence legislation. In 2013, Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced legislation requiring background checks for private gun purchases, a modest reform with massive popular support. The bill died in the Senate, despite garnering the support of 54 Senators (including members of both parties).

What would a world without the filibuster look like?

  • It would be a world where progressive legislation is possible. Whatever issue most motivates you – democracy reform, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, gun violence prevention legislation, debt-free college, an end to right-to-work, a higher minimum wage, anything – the fact is that Mitch McConnell (or his successor) will use the filibuster to block votes on any progressive priority.

  • Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agree: The only way to pass progressive legislation is to abolish the filibuster. Sen. Reid recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times lamenting how much progress was stalled because of “the gratuitous use of the filibuster” by Republicans during his tenure. Reid’s conclusion? “The Senate is now a place where the most pressing issues facing our country are disregarded, along with the will of the American people overwhelmingly calling for action. The future of our country is sacrificed at the altar of the filibuster. Something must change. That is why I am now calling on the Senate to abolish the filibuster in all its forms.” 

  • Funnily enough, in his own op-ed in the Times meant to counter Sen. Reid’s, McConnell accidentally came to the same conclusion: “No Republican has any trouble imagining the laundry list of socialist policies that 51 Senate Democrats would happily inflict on Middle America in a filibuster-free Senate.” That’s not how we would describe the fight for universal health care, campaign finance reform, or an improved immigration system, but the message is clear: Democrats’ only chance to enact progressive legislation is to bury the filibuster once and for all.

  • The filibuster makes the country ungovernable, according to Barack Obama. As recently as 2018, President Obama argued that the filibuster has got to go. Not only can we not pass any major progressive priorities while the filibuster exists; passing basically any legislation under regular order is nigh impossible. (The only things that tend to pass are “must-pass” bills, like government funding bills, and in order to get the support of 60 senators those bills usually do things like massively increase funding for the Pentagon in return for allowing the rest of the government to continue functioning.)

Won’t this put progressive priorities in danger if Republicans ever get a trifecta again?

  • Progressive priorities are already in danger; ending the filibuster will just give us the power to fight back. Republicans are using every avenue available to them – the courts, the states, the White House – to chip away at progressive priorities like abortion access and voting rights. As long as the filibuster exists, we are essentially giving conservative license to continue using the power they have grabbed to chip away at our rights without giving ourselves any power to fight back at the federal level.

  • The filibuster is already dead for conservative priorities, like cutting taxes and seating judges. Mitch McConnell has already ended the filibuster for the things he cares about. There used to be a 60-vote threshold to confirm Supreme Court justices, which Mitch McConnell eliminated in order to seat conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh onto the court. There is a loophole in the Senate called budget reconciliation that allows the majority to advance legislation with only a simple majority for legislation that directly impacts government spending or taxes – such as gutting the ACA or passing the Tax Scam. Democrats, on the other hand, probably couldn’t use reconciliation for things like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal because those would require non-budgetary policy changes.