What Is the Filibuster and How Does It Work?

By Debbie Wuthnow

What Is the Filibuster and How Does It Work?

How does the raging debate on the filibuster impact your personal freedom?

If the attempted federal power grabs in the "For the People Act" (S.B. 1) or the "Equality Act" (S.B. 5) become law, they will infringe on your voice as a voter and conscience as a citizen.

These bills quickly passed the House of Representatives, and the Democrats control the Senate, so what is holding them back?

The answer is the filibuster.  This one procedure is currently the only thing holding back a fundamental transformation of America, and by extension, your daily life.

The so-called For the People Act would be a drastic federal takeover of elections in every state that would, among other measures, eliminate the requirement for voter IDs.  Opponents say it would be more accurately named "The Corrupt Politicians Act" as it could change American history like few other laws have.

The Equality Act would ignore the First Amendment, replace the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and cause Christians living out biblical definitions of exclusive male and female genders to face severe consequences.

Without the filibuster, these radical bills—and others passed by the House—would likely already have passed the Senate, been signed into law by the president, and begun eroding our rights and liberties.

That is why the filibuster is the subject of major debate right now.  It is under fire from numerous high-profile elected officials using heated rhetoric to argue for its removal so they can push through radical leftist policies.  

Only two Democratic senators are standing in the way of its abolition, having stated their opposition.  With our liberties on the line, it is important for you to understand its significance.

What Is the Filibuster and How Does It Work?

If you've seen the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you have seen a classic example of a traditional filibuster.  A filibuster is any tactic that prevents a measure from being voted on, such as a bill or a confirmation vote on a presidential appointment. 

A filibuster only applies to the Senate.  The Constitution allows each chamber to determine its own rules, and rules in the House are different, with specific time limits during debates. 

The Senate generally has no limit on the length of time a senator can speak.  In the Senate, there is no provision in the rules for a simple majority to make a motion to end debate and bring a vote.  Thus, one senator who opposes a measure can hold up the vote by speaking as long as he is physically able to stand and speak, as Mr. Smith did in the movie.

How Can Anything Be Accomplished?

Today, the mere prospect of a filibuster is often enough to kill a bill.  A supermajority is required to pass most legislation in the Senate because the Senate is the place where reasoned debate is supposed to take place, with compromise and bipartisan agreement. Therefore, the Senate requires a three-fifths majority (60 senators) to end debate, break a filibuster and call a vote.  This is called the Rule of Cloture.

So, if 41 senators notify the majority leader that they are opposed to a bill, he knows it is futile to even bring that bill up for a vote without securing 60 senators to overcome a filibuster.  In a Senate evenly divided on partisan lines, the threat of filibusters on divisive bills is almost certain. 

By requiring a supermajority to pass most legislation, the filibuster can prevent a bill from being brought up for a vote at all, or it can force significant compromises from the bill's supporters.  One of the strengths of the American system of government is that we don't have wild swings of policy depending on the majority in Congress.  The filibuster is a part of that system of protections that ensures slow, incremental change to our legislation.

Eliminating the Filibuster

The Senate is governed by both written rules and precedent (or how the rules are applied).  The filibuster can be eliminated or weakened by changing either of those.

Changing Senate precedent is referred to as the "nuclear option."  Precedent is just as crucial to how the chamber functions as the rules themselves.  Unlike changing a rule, it only takes a simple majority (51 senators) to establish new precedent, making it much more likely.  Today, only two Democratic senators are preventing this from becoming a reality.

The nuclear option has been used before.  In 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed precedent so that presidential cabinet appointments only require a simple majority to be confirmed.  In 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also invoked the nuclear option to do the same for federal judicial appointees.

 The possibility of a filibuster on presidential appointees has been removed, but the nuclear option has never been used for legislative bills.  It would be an unprecedented move that would allow a complete rubber-stamp of every liberal bill, pave the way for court packing, and silence the voices representing half the country.

What Can You Do?

The filibuster is the only thing preventing an onslaught of progressive legislation, and only two Democratic senators are holding the line: Senators Manchin (WV) and Sinema (AZ).  Please call their offices and thank them for holding the line.  They are doing the right thing even under intense pressure. 

Call Senator Joe Manchin at (202) 224-3954 or Senator Kyrsten Sinema at (202) 224-4521, thank them for their courage and encourage them to continue to do the right thing and keep the filibuster.  Your encouragement is very important.  Please forward this request to any friends or family in Arizona or West Virginia, as support from their own constituents is most valuable.

The Impact of Elections

What Ronald Reagan reminded us in his inaugural address as governor of California still rings true:

"Freedom . . . is never more than one generation away from extinction . . . it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation."

Whether the filibuster endures or goes away, the main issue will be, as always, the principles and character of the senators who occupy the chamber.  The founding fathers recognized that even our brilliant system of government was not sufficient to preserve liberty.  It must be combined with a citizenry committed to electing candidates grounded in Judeo-Christian principles, which are the basis for our freedom and human rights.

The rules have evolved over the years, but the need to elect such candidates has not.  Thank you for standing with iVoterGuide.

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