The Death of the Filibuster—What Does it Mean?

For the past few days, I’ve been seeing a barrage of stories about the Senate’s recent reform of filibusters in the news, and I realized that I didn’t completely understand  what these changes actually were—or what they were going to mean in the long run—and decided to take the time to learn some more about it. For those of you that don’t know, a filibuster is when a member of the Senate attempts to prevent a certain bill or measure from reaching a vote by talking for a very long time. In the past, some senators have resorted reciting the Constitution, reading the phone book, or even reading Shakespeare aloud to pass time during their filibuster. A Senator can speak for as long as they wish and about whatever they want, as long as they don’t sit down or leave the Senate floor for bathroom, food, or drink break. The only time they are allowed to stop speaking is to answer questions.

The Senate has a “cloture rule” which allows Senators to vote to end a filibuster—this previously meant that sixteen members must initiate the cloture, and then 3/5 of the Senate must vote on it. If the cloture is passed, then the Senate can only debate the issue for a maximum of 30 more hours and no Senator may speak for more than 1 hour in this period.

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President Obama has criticized filibusters in the past for wasting the time of the Senate and resulting in a grid-locked Congress. While the Senate has threatened to impose the nuclear option (changing the Senate cloture rule to merely a majority rule instead of 3/5) in the past, they never actually followed through—until two weeks ago. This decision essentially forbids the minority Senate party from ever filibustering a presidential nominee.

Although I understand that a dead-locked Congress has been the root of most of the problems that our government has faced in recent months, I’m not sure if this is the right solution.

Freedom of speech is one of the basic tenets in our country, and our Senate has followed this principle by allowing unrestricted debate for the entirety our nation’s history. There have been many times when it seemed that opposing parties would never reach a compromise—regarding the National Bank, the nullification crisis, the list goes on—yet they always did; it just took time. That’s exactly what our founding fathers anticipated when they designed our government. Not only does the Senate equally represent each state, but it is also supposed to allow everyone an equal opportunity to voice their opinions. Without filibusters, there is nothing stopping the majority party from taking over every Senate decision.

Also, the decision to enforce the nuclear option is coming from Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader of the Senate. It’s obvious that the minority Republicans are not happy about this, and I think it will only serve to increase tensions between the two parties. If the Republicans happen to gain control of the Senate in next year’s midterm election, I think the Democrats could be in serious trouble.

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