The filibuster is usually thought a peculiar institution unique to the U.S. Senate. Actually it originated in the ancient Roman Senate, has a long history in the British Parliament, is found in the legislatures of other English-origin nations as well, and was at one time employed by members of our House of Representatives. Until quite recently it consisted simply of a legislator, or group of legislators, refusing to yield the floor, thus preventing the legislature from conducting other business. Strom Thurmond appears to hold the record, having spoken on the floor of the Senate for 24 hours uninterruptedly. Before there was a rule of “cloture” (a vote to limit debate), filibusters could be defeated only by the majority’s remaining in session, ready to vote on the bill being filibustered, until the filibustering senators gave up, exhausted. Since 1975, a vote of 60 senators (previously it had been 67) can limit debate and thus end a filibuster.
Filibusters have become increasingly common (and therefore cloture votes as well), and this is usually ascribed to growing political polarization. But a simpler explanation is that because the Senate is busier than it used to be, the announcement of a filibuster is generally enough to impel a cloture vote—the majority doesn’t want to take the time to try to wear out the filibusterers. If there are enough votes for cloture, the filibuster never takes place; if there aren’t enough votes, the majority gives up and abandons the bill that was to be filibustered. Hence the cost of filibustering has plummeted.
The filibuster, especially in its present streamlined form, creates a supermajority requirement to enact federal legislation. Supermajoritarianism is not unknown to the U.S. Constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority to overcome a presidential veto and a two-thirds vote to send a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification and three-fourths of the states must vote to ratify for the amendment to be adopted. But there is no supermajority requirement to enact ordinary legislation that the President does not veto, though the framers of the Constitution may have known that there were filibusters in the House of Commons and if so may have realized there could be filibusters in the Senate. The Senate could abolish the filibuster by changing its rules to allow a simple majority to end debate on a bill. It is true that Senate rules require a two-thirds vote to change a Senate rule, but it is possible that the two-thirds rule could be changed by a simple majority.
There is no pressure in the Senate itself to abolish the filibuster. The reason is that it benefits all Senators, not just those who expect to be in a minority, because it arms every Senator to demand concessions in exchange for voting for cloture. Several Senators exacted what seemed exorbitant concessions to induce them to vote for the health reform bill.
The usual criticism of the filibuster is that it is undemocratic, but this is imprecise, quite apart from the fact that the Constitution is riddled with undemocratic features (such as the amendment provision that I mentioned and the rules for the appointment and tenure of federal judges, not to mention the Electoral College and the entitlement of every state to two Senate seats regardless of population). A supermajority requirement for the enactment of legislation should just increase the “price” that the committed majority must “pay” for the votes of the uncommitted or strategic holdouts. If 49 Senators oppose or pretend to oppose some bill and threaten a filibuster, the majority needs to pry only nine of the opponents away from the opposition bloc to defeat the filibuster threat. The majority can offer concessions quite unrelated to the bill; alternatively, rather than “paying off” prospective filibusterers, they may be able to threaten to withhold support from them on issues more important to them than defeating the bill favored by the majority. If the holdouts are members of the majority party, the leadership may be able to coerce them by threatening to deny them choice committee assignments.
And in fact historically the filibuster has rarely resulted in paralyzing the federal legislative process. The usual example of where it did paralyze it is the filibustering of civil rights legislation by Southern Senators such as Thurmond and Byrd in the 1950s. But it has been argued that the filibuster would have been overcome had not many Northern Senators been only lukewarm in their support of civil rights; and it does seem unlikely that the civil rights revolution could have come much earlier than it did.
What has awakened controversy over the filibuster is of course the election of Scott Brown as Senator from
There is an argument for the filibuster, and hence for a supermajoritary requirement, in the case of the health care program being pushed by the Administration. Because the program is unpopular among the general public, its enactment by a simple majority in both Houses would raise a valid question about the representative character of Congress. Not that a legislature should always bow to popular opinion. The theory of American government is representative rather than direct democracy (the latter illustrated by the referendums in