After a record number of filibusters by Senate Republicans in the recently closed session of Congress, a coalition of progressive organizations, Fix the Senate Now, is calling for filibuster reform. Among their concerns is an end to the requirement that a super-majority of 60 Senators vote to proceed to debate on any bill brought to the Senate floor.

Right now, a minority of 41 Senators can use existing filibuster rules to block any debate on a bill, judicial nominations or other federal appointments, and can grind the work of Congress to a halt. Critics of these rules pointed out that Republicans did so to push their hard right agenda or to win concessions for corporate clients.

Filibuster rules are not enshrined in the Constitution and can be amended at the beginning of each session of Congress. However, in the 111th session of Congress, Republicans used 91 filibusters, more than three times the number used in the entire 19th century, to block legislation. Threatened or actual filibusters in the entire decade of the 1960s affected about eight percent of congressional action. In the past two years, observers estimate, threatened or actual filibusters affected 70 percent of legislation.

Bob Edgar, a former member of Congress and current president of advocacy organization Common Cause, said, “The rise of such obstruction, often conducted in back room chambers, has come at great cost to principles such as bipartisanship, accountability, and transparency.”

“The Senate as a body is broken,” he said. Modern filibuster rules are nothing short of “legalized piracy disguised as democracy.”

Republicans used the filibuster to “exact a $700 billion ransom in the form of tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans with the simple threat to shut down the government,” Edgar added.

“This kind of use of Senate rules is unprecedented in our history,” said Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America. “The Senate as we saw it in the last two years resembled the Senate of ancient Rome.” No political system in the world that describes itself as a democracy functions this way, he said.

Cohen pointed to important legislation, literally dozens of bills passed with wide margins in the House of Representatives, that died in the Senate because of filibuster rules that allowed a minority of Senators to prevent even a public debate on them.

He may have been referring especially to two important pieces of legislation supported by the labor movement: the Employee Free Choice Act and the public option in the health reform bill. While neither was directly blocked by filibuster, the threat prevented them from seeing the light of public debate where Senators would have been under greater pressure too explain their positions on each of these popular provisions.

Another important example was the 9/11 Health and Compensation Bill, which provides resources to families of the first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Republicans used filibuster rules to block the bill for months in order to insert changes to the bill they favored and to force the Democrats to pass tax cuts for the rich.

The reform coalition favors a package of changes to the rules that would limit the ability of the minority to hold up debate on important legislation in this manner. According to its website, the Fix the Senate Now coalition doesn’t want to completely eliminate the filibuster, but rather supports ending the 60-vote requirement on motions to proceed to debate. In other words, the minority would have one chance to filibuster the bill, not the public debate of its provisions.

In addition, the burden of continuing a filibuster should be placed on the minority by requiring 41 votes to continue it after a certain period of time. (Often the business of the Senate can be held up with fewer than 41 votes if the 60-vote threshold can’t be reached – even if a significant majority favors proceeding to a vote.)

The coalition also calls for ending “secret holds” on appointments or nominations voted on in the Senate. Right now, any Senator can hold up the business of the Senate with a “hold” without being required to divulge who they are.

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, recalled the history of the use of filibuster by right-wing Senators to block anti-lynching laws and civil rights legislation. “It became one of the most effective tactics ever used to deny Americans their basic equality,” he explained. At least in those days, filibustering Senators were required to hold the floor of the Senate for the duration of their filibuster.

Today, “in the Senate, members can put holds on bills in secret while sipping on cocktails at the Capitol Hill Club or dialing for dollars for their next campaign,” Henderson said.

In connection with this point, a recent post at revealed that corporate lobbyists, like Republican Party operative Steven Duffield, actually encouraged their clients to get Republican Senators to use the filibuster rules to stall legislation in order to get provisions added to a bill that would benefit that corporate client.

Henderson urged an ongoing bipartisan discussion between the Democrats and Republicans on reforming the filibuster rules. “What’s important is that the basic rights of a minority party are preserved so that their views can be expressed in an appropriate way but at the same time not used in a trivial way to block consideration of either important legislation or nominees,” he said.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).