Weekly Wonder: The odd case of the Filibuster

By Devyani Chhetri 

BU News Service 

BOSTON — The filibuster, a legislative tactic allowing senators to debate indefinitely on a piece of legislation to prevent a vote on it, has been the source of much trepidation in the past two decades. As of Oct. 6, it is estimated that there have been four times as many filibusters since 1999 as all the years prior, according to data from the U.S. Senate. 

While the Senate does not maintain a record of how many times filibusters have occurred, experts traditionally look at the number of “cloture” motions filed to estimate the dependence of filibusters. 

Seventy-one cloture motions were filed during the proceedings of the 106th Congress, between 1999 and 2000. Two decades later, that number has risen to 292. Meanwhile, in the two decades prior to 1999, only 526 clotures were filed between the 96th and 105th Congress. 

A deadlock led by filibusters has been widely criticized for delaying legislation and obstructing judicial appointments. Filibusters led by Republican senators, during the Obama administration, were often used to block judges nominated by the president, allowing President Donald Trump to appoint nearly 200 judges during his term. 

The most identifiable cases happened during the 113th Congress, when the appointments of Robert L. Wilkins, Cornelia T.L Pillard and Patricia Millet to the District of Columbia court were blocked by Republican senators one after the other. 

Back in July, when it was former President Barack Obama’s turn to speak at the late Rep. John Lewis’ funeral service, he quickly made a case against filibusters in the U.S. Senate.  

“If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” he said

Recently, during the first presidential debate, Chris Wallace, the debate moderator, asked former Vice President Joe Biden if he would end filibusters. Biden was reticent to respond. 

As a reactive measure, senators often use the “cloture” motion to set restrictions on debate time. Successful imposition of clotures requires the assent of 60 of 100 senators. But based on Democrats’ changes in 2013 and Republicans in 2017, nominations of federal judges and Supreme Court judges only need a simple majority of 51 votes for confirmation. 

Most clotures in the past decade were filed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In the past three years, 33% of clotures were filed to fill judicial seats. In 2020, 50% of the clotures filed were done to fill judicial positions, according to the senate data. 

The debate now centers around ending the legislative filibuster. Critics often point to Republican use of the filibuster in the 1960s to block civil rights legislation and the disproportionate power it gives to smaller states. Those advocating to keep it say the filibuster is essential to ensure deliberation between the two parties. 

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