The Filibuster Is a Weapon Against Democracy

The blocking of the For the People Act proves that the Senate must reform its filibuster rules.

From left: U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD), Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) at the U.S. Capitol on June 22, 2021

Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Republicans successfully blocked debate yesterday on the For the People Act, the largest and most comprehensive package of voting rights legislation to appear before Congress in decades. Since the 2020 election, states across the country have either enacted or proposed dozens of laws meant to discourage voting by restricting voting rights. If passed, the For the People Act would counter these efforts by establishing federal guidelines and requirements designed to make voting easier—and thus make democracy stronger.

Senate Republicans were able to forestall any consideration of the act by threatening a legislative filibuster: a political tool that allows lawmakers to prevent a bill from coming up for a vote by refusing to end the period of debate over the bill. In effect, this threat means that no piece of legislation can move forward unless a supermajority of 60 out of 100 senators agrees that it may do so. In the end yesterday, it took only 50 senators to send the For the People Act into legislative limbo.

Once upon a time, a plausible case could be made for the legislative filibuster as a means of fostering bipartisan compromise and moderating public policy. That time has passed. As Tuesday’s standoff confirmed, the filibuster—which has no basis whatsoever in the U.S. Constitution, by the way, and which was wielded frequently throughout the 20th century to block civil rights legislation—has now been fully weaponized by a minority party that has made no secret of its willingness to use it at every juncture, when doing so would neutralize the lawmaking power of the majority. Such filibusters do not reward political moderation; they reap political nihilism.

The enormous challenges facing the country right now require legislative action. Americans elected President Biden and the 117th Congress last November to craft policies and pass laws that will help lift the nation out of a pandemic-fueled economic recession, redress ongoing legacies of racial injustice, combat the climate crisis, and—yes—restore faith in democracy. As interim NRDC president Mitchell Bernard puts it: “The Senate filibuster is broken. It’s time to fix it, through reforms that encourage bipartisanship without enabling a petulant and self-serving minority to grind the gears of good governance to a halt and block the legislative progress the country so urgently needs.”

The Senate doesn’t necessarily need to destroy the filibuster outright, but it must revise the practice. Currently, there are a number of ideas floating around Washington that would help to make this parliamentary maneuver less of a reflexive response by the minority party, from lowering the threshold of votes needed to sustain it to requiring lawmakers to physically remain on the Senate floor while an actual filibuster drags on (aka, the “talking filibuster”). Lawmakers from both parties should be open to discussions on such reforms because protecting the rights of the Senate minority is important. But it’s not as important as protecting American democracy. 

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