The Filibuster Upholds a Racist, Undemocratic Power Structure in Washington

The fundamental irony of the Filibuster, portrayed as a cartoon

The fundamental irony of the Filibuster, portrayed as a cartoon

Whether it be the notable Stackhouse filibuster in Season 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The West Wing’ or the movie ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ the filibuster is both an infamous and misunderstood rule among most Americans. The rule is an undemocratic excuse for keeping a racist power structure upheld in the United States government.

First things first, what is the filibuster? The filibuster is a rule (or lack thereof) to end debate in the Senate. There are two types of filibusters. The first is called a talking filibuster. This is when a single senator can literally stop or postpone a vote as long as they remain talking without stopping, sitting, or leaving the podium at a debate. The other is amore common form of a filibuster that is much simpler, called a silent filibuster. This is essentially threatening a filibuster, so debate doesn’t even take place because the minority has enough votes to filibuster if the debate went through. If effective, this will end up with the Senate calling a recess so that the vote is postponed, or not even beginning debate in the first place. It is the most powerful ability a minority can have in Congress, and is the one of the most controversial, confusing rules that there is.

The filibuster, contrary to popular belief, was created by accident, political scientist Sarah Binder explained in her testimony to the Senate in 2010. Before 1805, both the House and the Senate had what is called a ‘Previous Question’ motion, which allowed for debates to end by the vote of a simple majority. When debate ends, the vote can go through.
In 1805, THE Aaron Burr, killer of Alexander Hamilton (due to different political beliefs, a little too close to home in my opinion), and the Vice President at the time, complained to the Senate about the amount of repeating rules they had, so the Senate elected to eliminate the ‘Previous Question’ motion. (To impress Burr? I guess?) It is safe to say that the Senate did not realize what the power of this action would be, as the filibuster was not used for another 30 years.

By the mid 1800s, the filibuster had been used in full effect, and when one of Senator Clay’s bills had been filibustered, he got so mad that he threatened to create a law that would stop the filibuster. This wasn’t even viable because the attempt itself to reform the rule would get filibustered (of course). He was degraded by members of the Senate for even suggesting it. The filibuster had by this time become so essential to the minority party in the Senate that even suggestions of removing it were not taken lightly. It had not just become essential to the minority party, but most of the time that a bill would be filibustered, it would be a bill having to do with protecting Civil Rights. It had become essential to those trying to uphold racism.

Fast forward to 1917, when Woodrow Wilson, using his power as president, called for filibuster reform in the name of wartime and national security (Republicans were filibustering some of his wartime actions). Feeling both embarrassed and pressured, the Senate passed without an attempted filibuster (!) what was called the Cloture rule. A bipartisan committee had created the content of the rule. It is important to note that the Democrats had been scared to try to pass a simple majority rule to end debate because of the risk that Republicans (the minority party) would stop the vote (ironic). They eventually decided on a supermajority (2/3) vote to end debate. Although this rule did create a tangible way to end debate, it was not very realistic because, due to partisanship, ⅔ of Congress barely ever agree on anything. In 1975, it was reduced to a ⅗ vote, which is basically just as unrealistic.

Predictably, one of the most important times for progress in our country was almost ruined by the filibuster. The National Constitution Center outlined that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color, national origin in terms of civil rights and labor law, had passed the house in 1964 and needed to pass the Senate in order to go to the president to get signed. President Johnson had been a long time advocate for this act and was surely going to sign it if it came to his desk.

 In March of 1964, there was a very well-organized filibuster by primarily southern Democrats that took place during the Senate vote. The filibuster went on for 60 days. At the same time that they were filibustering, Democratic Whip Senator Humphrey and Republican Minority leader Senator Dirkson were trying to collect the 67 votes needed to invoke the cloture rule and prevent the filibuster. Senator Dirkson ended up making a very influential speech advocating support from his Republican caucus referring to them as the party for equality since the Civil War (Lincoln was a Republican). On June 10th, the same day as that speech, the Senate got 71 votes to end the filibuster and actually vote. The same rule that current day senators (primarily Republicans) claim to protect the rights of the minority actually is just a power hold that has a history of oppression on the actual minority groups in this country.

Civil Rights Filibuster comes to an end in 1964. (

Today, the filibuster is just as controversial. When the Democrats took back the Senate in January, there needed to be another rule book made about how leadership in the Senate would work because of the 50-50 split. Mitch Mcconnell, now Senate minority leader, threatened to filibuster a resolution allowing for Democrats to take back power unless the Democrats agreed to not get rid of the filibuster (the rule can’t get more problematic than that). This is what is so crazy about the rule. If the majority of the Senate wants to get rid of the filibuster, it probably will not go away simply because the filibuster gives the minority power to block it.
Crooked Media and Change Research performed a poll in late January asking registered voters about a range of topics. Among these were the filibuster. Right now, 49% of voters support eliminating the filibuster. This number increases past the 50% mark if it is attached to the minimum wage: if the filibuster is used to block a minimum wage increase (which is not unlikely) 53% support ending the filibuster. This shows that it is essential to attach the power of the filibuster to real things that affect people’s lives. To many, it is just another unimportant rule that makes Congress slow, but really, it can be the difference between someone being starving or fed, homeless or not, etc. 

One option is to get rid of the ability to silently filibuster, so those politicians who feel so strongly about not reforming the immigration system or blocking a minimum wage increase would have to put in the effort to continue to speak without sitting or leaving the podium. Representatives who are filibustering most put their face and reasoning behind an effort. If they really believe in their cause and believe the filibuster would help the people they represent, then they should have no problem putting their face and effort behind it. In 2013, Texas state senator Wendy Davis completed a heroic 12 hour filibuster to block an anti-abortion bill. The bill was going to shut down nearly all abortion clinics in the state. In her power suit and tennis shoes, Davis successfully stopped the bill from taking place within the deadline. If senators care so deeply about the topic they are filibustering, they should have no problem standing for half a day without stopping talking, otherwise, it may not be the right thing to do.

Wendy Davis filibustering an anti-abortion bill in 2013. (

The filibuster is one of the many rules that is still upholding a racist government. The very rule that blocked anti-lynching bills and attempted to block the Civil Rights Act in the 1960’s is also likely to block a long-needed minimum wage increase in the coming years and various bills that help people’s lives. It is essential to reform this rule in hopes of dismantling the racist, unrepresentative power structure that remains in Washington to this day.