Dudzinski: Why we should kill the filibuster

Haley Dudzinski, Op-Ed Contributor

In 2009, The Black Eyed Peas were topping the Billboard charts, Apple was promoting its new iPhone 3G, and the United States Senate passed the Affordable Health Care Act — the last major piece of legislation our country has seen become law in the last 11 years. Why? The existence of the filibuster. This legislative tool has been solely responsible for delaying legislation to the point of death for the last 100 years. The filibuster must be eliminated if we want a Congress that can pass and repeal laws the American people want and need.

The filibuster is a procedure that fundamentally doesn’t make sense. Why can 41 people, a minority in the Senate equivalent to 11 percent of the population, block a vote on a bill that would otherwise only require 51 votes to become law? In this way, the filibuster is also a harm to our ideals of representative democracy. The majority party, elected because their message and agenda were most in line with the wants of the people, should be able to enact the changes they and their constituents want without being stonewalled by the opposition.

While members of Congress are making ever-larger promises about how they’ll improve the country, they know passing major legislation on matters such as gun control, healthcare and climate change will be near impossible while the filibuster still exists. The Senate is no longer voting yes or no legislation; it’s voting yes or no on endless debate. Despite the fact that bills pass in the Senate by a simple majority of 51 votes, there must be a supermajority of 60 senators, the number required to beat a filibuster, who need to agree there should be a vote before that vote can take place. It’s the equivalent of buying a $5 sandwich, but having to give the cashier $6 to get the sandwich, just for her to give you $1 back.

While some argue that the filibuster is necessary to facilitate bipartisanship or improve the contents of bills themselves, the process of gaining a supermajority has become one more concerned with partisanship and alliances than ideological preferences. Debate and compromise are necessary components to crafting any piece of legislation, but they should be used as ways to improve the content of a bill rather than as a means to delay its passage indefinitely.

The filibuster is not an inherent legislative process in this country, and the Senate operated well without it during the time of the founding fathers. Legislators would debate a bill until there was a majority in agreement, and then they would vote. This was the case until 1806, when Aaron Burr decided there should be no limits on debate before voting, thereby unintentionally creating the foundation for the modern day filibuster. Although the concept technically existed after this point, almost every filibustered measure before 1880 eventually passed. When senators had to physically perform the act of debating a bill indefinitely, they would eventually tire and a vote would occur.

This changed in 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson demanded rules be created to end a filibuster. Under this new system, called cloture, a two-thirds vote in the Senate could override a filibuster by limiting senators to one hour of debate before a vote. Wilson ironically justified this choice by arguing cloture would make Congress more responsive and allow it to act quicker, while in reality he was dooming it to the opposite fate. Senators were now no longer required to physically filibuster a bill. If there was not a two-thirds majority in place to vote against a filibuster, the bill was effectively dead.

Aside from its modern popularity, the filibuster was used most used during the Civil Rights movement, when Southern senators used it as a means of preventing civil rights legislation from passing. Their endless debate, such as one 74 day filibuster meant to prevent the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, led to the decision that a vote to see if there was enough support to beat a filibuster was equivalent to a filibuster itself. This is why today’s senators can filibuster by simply signaling their intent to do so. Which begs the question: if today’s filibuster involves no real debate, is there any use in keeping it around?

It’s no secret that the filibuster benefits the minority party and it can be difficult to support
eliminating the filibuster when the opposition party has control. But the benefits clearly outweigh the risks and our lawmakers know this, as multiple candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have openly stated they are for or open to eliminating the filibuster.

When faced with the choice between letting your ideological opponents use their earned power or holding Congress at a standstill, the best option for the United States is to have a system in place where bills are passed, rejected, and amended rather than sitting idle on a Kentucky senator’s desk.

Haley Dudzinski is a Weinberg junior. She can be contacted haleydudzinski2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.