The filibuster – in which a senator or group of senators can control the Senate floor as long as they continue speaking – is a tool of the underdog. And if Senate Republicans don’t get the votes they need to confirm Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, the filibuster may be history.
Democrats in the Senate have vowed to use the maneuver to block Gorsuch. Republicans say they will then use what’s been called “the nuclear option” – abolish the filibuster altogether.
Filibusters of the past, even the unsuccessful ones, have marked political movements. When majorities seemed to have all the power, lawmakers from Wendy Davis in the Texas Senate, to Ted Cruz in Washington, have made effective use of the rule that allowed them and their allies to hold the floor, even when they were unlikely to win the vote.
In Frank Capra’s 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, Jimmy Stewart, a newly appointed senator, learns that as long as he keeps talking, he will hold the floor. His goal is to shine a light on his colleagues’ corruption – win or lose.
Jim Riddlesperger, a professor of political science at TCU, says the filibuster has been around since the beginning of the U.S. Republic, but that it became more well-known in the 20th century. As portrayed in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, and as used on the U.S. Senate floor, the filibuster represents the minority’s last stand.
“I think [the filibuster] is best understood as something that is a tool of the minority that is a threat that requires the majority to deal with the minority,” Riddlesperger says. “So it isn’t the filibuster itself that is so powerful. It is the threat that has, over the years, forced the majority in the Senate to deal the minority. And in that sense, it has had a positive, salutary effect on the overall cooperation and comity in that body.”
Riddlesperger says that despite its reputation as a way for minority voices to be heard, the filibuster has a checkered history.
“The filibuster has been used for the bad far more than it has been used for the good,” he says. “Democracy not only requires majority rules, but it also requires minority rights and the interests of the minority ought to be considered – and considered in a weighty way.”
The filibuster has been used by both political parties, Riddlesperger says, and eliminating it will probably have negative consequences for Republicans in a future Senate.
“The Republicans, especially those that have been on Capitol Hill for a long time, recognize that what goes around comes around,” he says. “And if they do away with the guarantees that are now used by the Democrats, in two years or four years down the road, Republicans may lose the same guarantees for themselves.”
Losing the filibuster, which comes from a Dutch word meaning “pirate” won’t be the end of democracy, Riddlesperger says.
“It’s not a major loss. The filibuster is one technique that allows the minority to be heard,” he says. “Of course, in a democracy, the majority should, in fact, govern. But the traditions of the Senate have always been of comity, of people getting along with one another, and even if they disagree with one another, they talk with one another. And under this circumstance, it becomes possible for a majority of 52 Republicans to effectively steam roller the Democrats in the Senate.”
Written by Shelly Brisbin.