Liberally Speaking (11/25/09)

Time to kill the filibuster

Nov. 25, 2009

By Steve Mount

A few weeks ago in these pages, I took issue with those who insist we live in a democracy, explaining that a democracy is not an ideal system for a population of any significant size. Our system of representative democracy, where we hire, or elect, people to represent us, is a much better way of running a government.

Along with this indirect form of representation, we have protections in our system to ensure that the majority does not act as a tyrant. Our constitutions, for example, protect the freedoms of all, especially those of the minority.

Given all this, I feel the time is right to rail against one of my least favorite “features” of our legislative process — the filibuster.

The word derives from a Dutch term for a type of pirate. The term was first applied to American adventurers who sought to overthrow Central American governments in the 19th century, and was transferred to Senators who attempt to do the same to legislation.

The filibuster has a long history. At their inception, both houses of Congress allowed for unlimited debate — which is a fancy way of saying that a member of Congress could talk for as long as he wished, on any subject. While the member spoke, no other business could be conducted. If you could get two-like minded members to team up, that house of Congress would grind to a halt.

This is the exact opposite of a democratic principle, a tyranny of one.

The House long ago did away with this practice, as the number of Representatives rose. The Senate, however, retains the practice. For more than 100 years, there was no way to stop debate. In 1917, the Senate created the cloture rule. Under the cloture rule, if enough Senators vote to stop debate, it stops. Originally, the number needed to invoke cloture was two-thirds, or 67 Senators in today’s Senate. In 1975, the number needed to invoke cloture was reduced to three-fifths, or 60 Senators.

There have been several famous filibusters through history. Some are the stuff of legend — Huey Long, Democrat of Louisiana, filibustered the Senate multiple times in the 1930s as he railed against legislation he felt gave too much to America’s upper class. He entertained the nation by reading the phone book, Shakespeare and the Bible into the public record.

Some filibusters had nothing short of evil intent. Strom Thurmond, Democrat (and Republican) of South Carolina, filibustered for more than 24 hours to stop civil rights legislation in 1957. Other anti-civil rights filibusters were the norm until 1964, when the Senate was finally able to move the issue forward.

We have made some progress from the tyranny of one, to the tyranny of the quarter, to the tyranny of the two-fifths. I am a proponent for the protection of the minority, but the main protection for the minority is the Constitution, not an arcane Senate rule. It is time, has been time for a long time, to remove this technical procedure altogether.

Lest you think that this is just some sour grapes, the result of the recent close vote on cloture to allow the Senate’s version of the health care bill to come to the floor, I admit that’s part of it. It isn’t like I sit around mulling over the filibuster and cloture every day.

But the recent vote only brought the issue to the foreground. I’ve disliked the filibuster and cloture for as long as I can remember. I would support doing away with it when the Senate is controlled by Republicans, too.

Not only is the filibuster anti-democratic, it is also ripe for abuse. Recent reports that Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s vote for cloture was bought with a $100 million gift to Louisiana is just another side of the problem — to get to cloture, the majority party might be willing to buy votes.

Whether that happened here or not is not relevant — what is relevant is that it can happen, that it has happened before, that it will happen again.

I’m thankful that the Senate voted to allow the health care bill to come to the floor for debate. It is a good step in the right direction. Once we have this important piece of legislation properly vetted, debated, amended and passed, hopefully the Senate will take a close look at its rules and decide that the time of the filibuster has long since gone.


Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at