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The History of the U.S. Filibuster

In the United States Senate, there is a loophole within the chamber’s rules that when exploited, essentially blocks legislation from being passed into law. A filibuster is any attempt by any senator to block or delay the Senate from getting to a vote on legislation, leading to endless, irrelevant debate, the offering of infinite amendments to legislation and obstructive motions. Instead of requiring Senators to reach a consensus on legislation by obtaining a simple majority of 51 votes, the filibuster requires at least 60 votes to just end debate and then proceed to a vote. Since the incidental creation of the filibuster over 200 years ago, the loophole has caused extreme gridlock in the upper chamber of Congress, providing the Senate with the moniker, ‘the legislative graveyard’.

Many historians believe that the filibuster originated as an unintended consequence of a cleanup of the Senate rulebook in 1806. Aaron Burr, the former Vice-President, had previously told the Senate that they had too many rules and in response, the Senate eliminated numerous rules that seemed inconsequential, including one that could have been used to cut off debate. Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina took note of this in the 1840’s and took the opportunity to block bills he believed would limit the power of slave-holding states, particularly in the South. He talked for hours on end to block legislation he deemed unfavourable, popularizing the practice.

By the turn of the 20th century, politicians on both sides of the aisle became irritated with the gridlock and the fact that a single senator could kill legislation that a majority of the Senate wished to see passed. In 1917, the 28th President Woodrow Wilson advocated for the adoption of Senate Rule 22, which allowed for debate to end when a 2/3 majority vote, now known as a cloture of only a 3/5 majority vote (60 senators), was acquired.

In more modern times, the filibuster is known as a ‘Jim Crow relic’ of the United States Senate that is often used by Republicans to block important pieces of legislation favoured by the Democrats. Mitch McConnell, the former Senate Majority Leader and current minority leader, remains one of the most famous proponents of the filibuster. He, along with two democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are also supporters of the filibuster because they both believe it promotes bipartisanship. This delusional thinking has caused important pieces of voting rights legislation, like the ‘For the People Act’ (H.R.1) and the ‘John Lewis Voting Rights Act’ (H.R.4), to die on the Senate floor. Just as it was used 100 years ago to restrict the rights of minorities, primarily Black, Brown and Indigenous Americans, the filibuster is still used today to protect a repressive Republican minority rule.

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