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The Importance of the Filibuster and Its Long-Standing Tradition in the United States Senate

January 12, 2022

By Miles Johnson

The filibuster has long been a tradition in the United States Senate that dates to Congress’ first session in 1789. Since its inception, the filibuster has been a defining feature of the Senate’s processes and procedures, with its intended purpose being to protect the minority party’s rights and ensure broader consensus than required in the House of Representatives. As George Washington commented to Thomas Jefferson soon after the adoption of the Constitution, the Senate was created as a body that would “cool” legislation coming from the House of Representatives, just as a saucer cools hot tea. The House of Representatives only takes a simple majority to pass legislation, and there is no filibuster to slow down or broaden support. However, the Senate has used the filibuster to ensure the Founders’ desire for checks and balances in the government.

The Founders were hopeful that the Senate would be an institution that would be shielded from the political headwinds of election years and the factious divides of the Nation. The Senate was designed to be a more deliberate body that elected its members to 6-year terms, compared to 2-year terms in the House of Representatives. In the view of the Founders, the Senate should, when prudent, provide a check on the hastier pace of the House.

Although it was not part of the Constitution, the filibuster has been used throughout the history of the United States Senate to delay or stop legislation that may be considered too radical or imprudent. It provides the minority party with a tool to combat out-of-touch policies. The process in place to end a filibuster is known as a cloture motion. To invoke cloture on a judicial nomination, the Senate only needs a simple majority; however, aside from budget reconciliation, which requires a simple majority, all other cloture motions on legislation must meet a 60-vote threshold. If the 60-vote threshold is met, the Senate may consider the debated legislation. This process is in line with the Founding Fathers’ intent in creating the Senate and its necessary role in government. The filibuster has proven to be an essential distinction of the Senate throughout its history. Without it, there is not a clear difference between the Senate and the House, as the majority party would always have an outsized influence, even in a 50-50 Senate like we have currently.

Unfortunately, today many on the Left are advocating for killing the filibuster in an effort to pass unpopular voting “rights” legislation that will make it much easier to cheat in our elections. The proposed ideas from the Left regarding election reform are out of touch with mainstream America, and they are a stern rebuke of the integrity needed in our election systems. The American people support the commonsense voting laws that the Left is attempting to remove, including meaningful photo ID requirements and receipt of ballots by election day.

Ironically, some of the senators calling for the elimination of the filibuster today are the same ones who have advocated for it in the past. In 2017, a group of bipartisan senators, which included many on the Left, signed a letter calling for the protection of the filibuster. In the letter, they state, “we are united in our determination to preserve the ability of members to engage in extended debate when bills are on the Senate floor.” Made even more clear by some, the current Senate Majority Leader emphatically stated his opposition to killing the filibuster in the past. The flip-flop from many on the Left is remarkable and is even more dramatic considering the power grab that is an obvious attempt to pass reckless voting “rights” legislation that will undermine election integrity.

Election reform is a hot topic in politics now. If the Left is successful in rebuffing the filibuster, it will lead to a barrage of partisan legislation in the future and will further undermine the American people’s trust in their representative government. The filibuster supports deliberation in the Senate, and without it, majoritarian rule will become the rule of governance in Congress. In its more than 200-year history, the Senate has maintained the filibuster’s role in taking up legislation. The Left would be wise to continue this tradition. If not, they will be in for a reckoning when party control flips and partisan legislation is being pushed by the other side.

Miles Johnson serves as the Government Affairs Manager at the America First Policy Institute.