Context: By the end of the 117th Congress, a new high of 21 members of the U.S. Senate’s Democratic Caucus had voiced support for abolishing the Chamber’s unlimited debate rule, otherwise known as the “filibuster.”  Established in 1806, the rule was meant to eliminate subversions of Senate debate, while ultimately allowing any member of the Senate to delay a vote by continuing to speak for as long as possible. Currently, the rule enables any senator to hold up most Senate votes unless 60 members vote to advance invoking “cloture” without need for actual deliberation on the floor.

Since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, various proposals on filibuster reform, and even abolition, have been publicly discussed. 

Here, Granahan and Gaughan will argue the benefits of abolishing and maintaining the current filibuster, without delving into discussions of how it might be otherwise reformed. Both writers generally hold the views they represent.

For (Granahan):

On Aug. 29, 1957, Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) stopped speaking after over 24 hours of doing so, and thus, the longest single-person filibuster in American history drew to a close. 

Thurmond’s filibuster —  which saw him read the election laws of every single state, eat small pieces of hamburger meat, and relieve himself into a bucket in the Senate cloakroom— was his attempt to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a crucial piece of legislation that would end the disenfranchisement of African-American voters. 

As a sufficient number of votes for cloture were not present, Thurmond was free to block the act’s passage for as long as he could keep speaking.

Thurmond’s filibuster occurred in an era when the filibuster was a longshot, almost comical method of political maneuvering; after all, one man motivated purely by racism can only piss in a bucket for so long while hungry and sleep-deprived. 

Today, however, one no longer needs to follow Thurmond’s lead to throw a wrench into Senate procedure. Once a way of exploiting a loophole in the Senate’s rules, the filibuster has since been codified into these rules. 

A perpetual speaker is no longer required to carry out a filibuster; all that is required is the refusal of 41 of the 100 members of the Senate to vote for cloture. No thanks to the filibuster, a minority of senators can subvert the will of the majority.

To see the impact of requiring supermajorities to pass simple legislation, one must look no further than the first governing document of the United States: the Articles of Confederation. 

Under the ill-fated Articles, Congress —which then consisted of representatives voting on behalf of each of the 13 states — was prohibited from undertaking any actions, including appropriating funds or electing an executive, “unless nine states assent[ed] to the same.”  

In combination with the handicapping of Congress’s abilities by the Articles, the requirement for a supermajority of 9 out of 13 states to agree to do anything nearly led to the end of the United States before it even began.

The filibuster was used in the 1940s to block three bills which would have prohibited the anti-democratic practice of poll tax, which would be used to disenfranchise low-income voters for another two decades. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination in public accommodations based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin,  was nearly doomed by a filibuster led by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV). 

And although the Emmett Till Antilynching Act did not fall victim to the filibuster prior to its 2022 passage, the same cannot be said about the Dyer Antilynching Bill, which was killed by a Southern-led filibuster in 1922. In the century following this filibuster,  hundreds of people  would be  murdered in overwhelmingly racially-motivated lynchings.

In the 22nd Federalist Paper, Alexander Hamilton lamented the requirement of supermajorities to pass legislation as laid out in the Articles of Confederation, on the grounds that “its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.” 

The filibuster has followed Hamilton’s description of the ramifications of supermajorities with a worrisome accuracy. 

The existence of a system that allows the will of a majority of democratically-elected senators to be upended by the minority is a repugnant stain on the world’s strongest and oldest enduring political system derived from the consent of the governed. According to an April 2021 survey,  57% of Americans support either abolishing or reforming the filibuster. That is more of a majority than the 41% of senators required to block the passage of a bill will ever be.

Against (Gaughan):

It takes one law to kill a republic. Perhaps this may seem an exaggeration, but in the modern world, it happens more often than you might think. Never lost in the pages of any Republican’s history book is the Latin phrase  Senatus Consultum Ultimum or, the final Senate counsel. The SCU signaled support for the Republican consuls, among others, to violate restrictions and even laws in the name of safety. It’s a dangerous concept the post-Enlightenment world has yet to shake.

Following an attempted coup against his regime in 2017, Turkish Prime Minister — now President — Erdogan narrowly shoved through a national referendum overhauling his country’s governance system and enabling him to partially rule by decree. Omitting his previous governments, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has, over the last 3 years, utilized his parliamentary majority to seize similar decretal powers multiple times. 

In Israel today, the government of PM Netanyahu has advocated a sweeping judicial overhaul  which would vest near full power in the country’s parliament, in which his coalition wields a 64-seat majority — approximately 53%.

Historically, tyrants and their henchmen have denounced, with some validity, the mob-rule nature of blanket democracy — lest it be forgotten that in Democratic Athens, by majority vote of his 500 jurors , Socrates was sentenced to die. It would be an overstatement to assert that eliminating this legislative tool would trigger the imminent end of our republic. But to suggest that it would by no means affect the strength of both our institutions and rights as a nation would be absurd. 

Many of the Senate’s left-leaning voices have declared the filibuster’s end necessary for advancing voting, reproductive, and LGBTQIA+ rights. But they should look before they leap. Before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, two of America’s most well-established reproductive rights advocacy groups, Planned Parenthood and NARAL, notably removed themselves  from the filibuster fight altogether, recognizing that with or without the 60-vote rule, threats would remain. Perhaps, in one year of full control, Democrats could push a sweeping ticket of reforms on all the aforementioned subjects. But when inevitably the pendulum should swing right, they’d have to watch their achievements go up in flames.

With a distinctly unfavorable Senate map going into the 2024 elections, Democrats know that without entrenchment, strides toward liberal dreams could easily become sprints from conservative-induced nightmares. 

 Various Republican presidential candidates have advocated policies from abortion bans to federal campaigns against the LGBTQ community, all the way to wholesale abolitions of Federal departments and agencies that would leave countless Americans jobless. Right now, in a politically gridlocked society, any party winning the support of enough states’ populations to secure 60 votes in the Senate is virtually unthinkable, while the idea that any given radical policy could at some point gain a basic majority, depending on who controls the now near-evenly split chamber, is almost inevitable.

In a consensus-demanding system, the 60-vote requirement for the passage of major legislation has propelled achievements — in recent years alone — in improving national infrastructure, enhancing gun safety, working to keep the US technologically competitive with China and enshrining same-sex and religious freedoms in Federal law. 

It’s true, from wherever you sit on the aisle, that the filibuster has, and will continue to, hold up policies that are important to you. And that’s why it’s important. Because in a nation of well over 300 million people, we all must agree to disagree on so much. 

Holding our legislature to similar standards on points of greater controversy embodies that not by promoting the rule of the minority, but by preventing the rule of the mob.