One of the most important rules governing American life isn’t a law, or a Constitutional amendment. It’s the wonky parliamentary procedure known as the filibuster.
And it’s jammed up the U.S. Senate worse than a 200,000-ton tanker in the Suez Canal.
The filibuster is a tactic that effectively lets the minority party block the majority’s agenda. Even though the 100-person Senate can approve bills with just 51 votes, most types of legislation effectively require a supermajority of 60 votes to pass. As a result, even if one party wins the White House, plus majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives (as the Democrats have now), the other side can block their agenda by threatening to drag out debate forever, so long as they have at least 41 seats. And that, pretty much, explains where President Biden and the Senate Democrats are right now, facing possible obstruction even though they’ve got 50 votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker.
So President Joe Biden wants to change to the filibuster—by taking it back to its roots.
Thanks to a rule change in the 1970s, senators no longer have to make good on their threat to block bills by extending discussion forever. They can simply say that they would—and head home for a good night’s sleep.
Biden’s idea is to make senators keep talking to prolong a filibuster, like they had to before the 1970s.
“It used to be you had to stand there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed,” Biden said in March. “And guess what? People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing. Filibusters broke down, and we were able to break the filibuster, get a quorum, and vote.”
Perhaps more importantly, such a change might force senators to take a public stand in favor of unpopular positions—instead of filing a silent objection from the Senate cloakroom.
If that change doesn’t work, Biden expressed support for killing the filibuster altogether—which would make big changes in the Senate very possible.
But such a change would also allow Republicans to ram through their agenda, once the pendulum of American politics eventually swings back in their direction.
Blowing up the filibuster requires an agreement among all Democratic senators, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. And in a recent Washington Post op-ed, Manchin vowed he wouldn’t let that happen.
But he’s also previously said he wants to make the filibuster more “painful” for the minority party to use—raising questions about whether he might come around to favoring Biden’s plan to bring back the talking filibuster as a first step.