Jan 12, 2022
A new timeline documenting the history of the Senate filibuster shows how the rule, which now requires a 60-vote supermajority to advance most legislation, has been used to protect ruling-class interests for over two centuries and makes the case that the future of democracy in the U.S. depends on reforming it.
"The Senate MUST end the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation. Our democracy depends on it."
Faced with a world-historic question of whether to blow up the filibuster or keep it intact, how senators answer "could very well determine the fate of our democracy," argues Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, the pro-democracy watchdog group behind the timeline project.
"The grave risk facing our democracy today stems directly from former President Donald Trump's Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him--pure demagoguery repeated incessantly and with no basis in fact," Wertheimer wrote in a Tuesday statement.
"The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would override the state voter suppression laws triggered by Trump's Big Lie," Wertheimer continued. "They would also protect against partisan election administration officials rigging the results of federal elections and protect against future enactment of state and local voter discrimination laws."
The timeline details how the filibuster, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used numerous times last year to block the Democratic majority's broadly popular proposals, is preventing these key pieces of voting rights legislation from passing.
With the support of all 50 Senate Democrats plus Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) could repeal the filibuster indefinitely. That would enable his caucus to pass bills with a simple-majority vote--circumventing Republican obstructionism in order to neutralize the GOP's nationwide assault on the franchise and improve the lives of working-class Americans.
During a Tuesday speech in which he denounced the Trump-instigated Jan. 6 coup attempt and ensuing right-wing attacks on ballot access, President Joe Biden implored Senate Democrats to suspend the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation.
Although the chamber recently created an exception to the 60-vote rule to raise the nation's debt ceiling on a party-line vote, some conservative Democratic senators--most prominently Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.)--continue to insist on the supposed sanctity of the filibuster, even expressing opposition to Biden's proposed carve-out for voting rights.
Both lawmakers have claimed that the filibuster promotes bipartisan cooperation. But Adam Jentleson, executive director of the Battle Born Collective and former chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-N.M.), took one minute on Wednesday to explain how "the filibuster turbocharges polarization and gridlock."
\u201cClaim: The filibuster forces bipartisan negotiation.\n\nFact Check: FALSE\n\nGive @AJentleson one minute to explain how the filibuster turbocharges polarization and gridlock:\u201d— Battle Born Collective (@Battle Born Collective) 1642010796
As Jentleson put it, the minority party uses the filibuster to gum up the legislative process and then hits the campaign trail to accuse the majority party of being ineffective. Without that option, the minority party would be forced to either negotiate in good faith with the majority party to craft bipartisan legislation or "stand on the sidelines."
Manchin once appeared to understand this. In 2011, when he cosponsored and voted for two measures to modify the filibuster, the West Virginia Democrat said that "unfortunately, the legislative process in Washington has gotten so dysfunctional that it doesn't even make much sense at all anymore... We have become paralyzed by the filibuster and an unwillingness to work together at all."
Ahead of an upcoming vote on possible revisions to the filibuster, which Schumer has scheduled to take place on or before Monday, Democracy 21 stressed that the anti-democratic rule was "never written in stone" and has "been routinely changed."
"During the period from 1969 to 2014," the group said, "filibuster rules were bypassed 161 times when specific measures were allowed to pass the Senate by majority vote."
Echoing dozens of scholars who pointed out last year that the filibuster is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution, Democracy 21 noted that then-Vice President Aaron Burr created the rule "by mistake in 1806," after which it was--and continues to be--used for nefarious purposes.
"In the 206 years since then, the filibuster has repeatedly been used to block a wide swath of civil rights protections--from anti-lynching laws and anti-poll tax measures in the 19th and 20th centuries to the efforts today to block voting rights protections," said the group.
The filibuster was rarely used for most of the 19th century, but that started to change after Reconstruction was abandoned and white supremacist southern Democrats started using it to consolidate power through mass disenfranchisement.
In 1891, as the timeline shows, "a week-long Senate filibuster kill[ed] a House-passed election reform bill, crafted to protect the right of eligible Black men to vote by overriding poll tax laws and other state voter suppression laws being enacted in southern states."
This marked the beginning of a decadeslong pattern in which Dixiecrats deployed the filibuster to block legislation that aimed to undo Jim Crow apartheid, the regime of state-sanctioned racial segregation and inequality that prevailed in the South until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Opposition to civil rights legislation generated some of the most notable filibusters in U.S. history.
As Democracy 21 noted, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond conducted a record 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Although the legislation ultimately passed, it was "significantly modified and [its] basic provisions... removed" in order to garner the 67 votes then needed to end a filibuster.
A few years later, multiple southern senators conducted a 60-day filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They were eventually defeated when enough lawmakers voted to proceed--the first time the Senate had a sufficient number of votes to override a filibuster on a major civil rights bill.
Civil rights bills were the "leading victims" of the filibuster in the 20th century, the timeline notes.
It cites historian Sarah Binder, who wrote last year that "of the 30 measures we identified between 1917 and 1994, exactly half addressed civil rights--including measures to authorize federal investigation and prosecution of lynching, to ban the imposition of poll taxes, and to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race in housing sales and rentals."
"Keep in mind," Binder added, "the 20th century filibuster [also] scorched many civil rights measures beyond those that it killed outright."
Anti-civil rights filibusters were often defended, according to the Center for American Progress, "with 'inflated rhetoric about an alleged Senate tradition of respecting minority rights and the value of extended debate on issues of great importance.' But belying this rhetoric, conservatives during this period generally refrained from engaging in filibusters on issues other than civil rights."
While senators reduced the number of votes needed for cloture from 67 to 60 in 1975, they simultaneously adopted a rule that strengthened the filibuster. As the Brennan Center for Justice explained last year:
No longer would a filibuster delay all Senate business. Instead, new Senate procedure would create a dual-tracking system that allowed the body to toggle between different bills so that a bill facing a filibuster was 'kept on the back burner' until a vote for cloture could be successful. [...] The talking filibuster had died.
As a result, said Democracy 21, "the use of the filibuster has mushroomed" since the 1970s, along with "the number of exceptions to filibuster rules."
According to the Brennan Center, cloture motions, the procedure used to end a filibuster, "have skyrocketed since 2006, doubling from that year to the next and reaching an all-time high in the [2019-2020] Senate. There have been as many cloture motions in the last 10 years (959) as there were during the 60-year period from 1947 to 2006 (960)."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who criticized the filibuster in a Twitter thread on Tuesday, said that "the Senate MUST end the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation. Our democracy depends on it."
Ocasio-Cortez added that "19 states passed laws that restrict the right to vote in 2021, disenfranchising millions of Americans. How many more will follow suit this year? We can't wait to find out."
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