How the Filibuster Emptied Out American Politics

If Congress can’t legislate, what exactly do congresspeople do?

The 111th U.S. Senate (public domain)

When did America’s problem with the filibuster begin?

Was it in 1805, when Vice President Aaron Burr — recently charged with the killing of Alexander Hamilton — suggested that the Senate clarify its rules? The Senate then got rid of the “previous question” motion, which allowed them to end debate and move to a vote; this change theoretically allowed senators to extend debate indefinitely, though no one did for decades.

Or was it in 1837, when Whig senators performed the first filibuster, holding the floor for hours to prevent Democrats from undoing the Senate’s censure of Andrew Jackson? This was the moment that the filibuster became an accepted practice in the Senate.

How about the 1880s, when the tactic moved from being a rare event to something that shut down the Senate’s business every couple of years? This pattern led to the Senate passing a rule in 1917 that allowed a vote of two-thirds of the members to end a filibuster (they changed it to 60 votes in 1975).

Was it the 1970s, when, after repeated filibusters over civil rights legislation, the Senate acted to prevent filibusters grinding all legislation to a halt? Allowing the Senate’s other business to continue while one bill was being filibustered had the unintended consequence of making the tactic more common, since it was no longer seen as a “nuclear option.”

Or has it been in the last 20 years, when Senators in the minority have routinely employed the rule to block pretty much everything the majority party might want to do? The Senate went from 60–80 votes per Congress on cloture — which ends debate and leads to a vote, essentially ending a potential filibuster — to well over 100 on average after 2007, peaking at over 300 invocations of cloture in 2019–2020.

Whatever set of historical events is most to blame, the effects of the filibuster are clear: nothing much happens without 60 votes in the Senate, and since it’s almost impossible for either party to win 60 seats, the Senate passes almost nothing. Our country’s biggest problems have been allowed to metastasize for two decades because of a strange procedural rule that was created by mistake.

The filibuster saps the public’s confidence in Congress

It’s more than that, though. Over the last few decades, because of the filibuster, Americans have gotten used to the idea that their government isn’t really going to do anything about most of our serious issues.

Only a few major bills that weren’t an emergency response to a national crisis have made it through the Senate in the last two decades; and many of them, like Obamacare, were so battered by the process that they didn’t accomplish nearly as much as they could have.

Simultaneously, politics has become more nationalized with the decline of local newspapers and the rise of social media. Our political debates have become more intense, but they’re about fewer things that matter. American politics has emptied out.

You can see the effect of this in Americans’ feelings about Congress. Confidence in Congress has never been great — it fell from 30–40% in the 1970s and 1980s to the 20–30% range in the 1990s and early 2000s. But the number hasn’t broken 13% since 2010, which pretty much corresponds to a period of more aggressive use of the filibuster in the Senate. In 2014, after Republicans had blocked pretty much everything the Obama Administration had tried to do for years, only 7% of Americans had confidence in their legislature.

The failure of Congress to do anything about our most serious unsolved issues — guns, immigration, inequality, climate change, and a million others — has only fed American disillusionment about the ability of government to do anything. It’s no coincidence that the president who took office after confidence in Congress hit single digits was Donald Trump — a nihilist who openly speculates that no politicians are on the level and that Washington is a “swamp.”

What do politicians do all day if they can’t pass laws?

The problem is that American legislators still have to run for office in an environment when it’s quite unlikely that they’ll get to do any, well, legislating. So many of them have decided to make politics about something other than policy.

Some politicians have reacted to this by realizing that they can promise anything to voters and then blame the dysfunction in Washington for their failure. Trump was the master of this. He pledged to replace Obamacare with a “phenomenal” health care program, but no one in the White House ever bothered to draft anything. The Republicans made a few stabs at repealing Obamacare without replacing it, and then Trump spent the rest of his presidency blaming Democrats for his failure. Trump, weirdly, seemed to prefer to fail and blame his opposition for that failure rather than put the effort into actually succeeding. The filibuster is a perfect excuse for his politics, based on resentment and whining.

It’s not just Trump — many politicians don’t even bother with policy anymore. You can see this in the new crop of celebrity Republicans — think Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene — who seem far more interested in culture-war shenanigans than actual legislation. Greene was stripped of her committee assignments after she encouraged violence against Democrats, but she didn’t seem to mind. Now that she’s free from any actual job duties, she has more time to spread misinformation and slander her enemies. Figures like Ted Cruz, once a respected legal mind, now seem to mainly be internet trolls.

Republican representative Madison Cawthorn even said it out loud — he emailed other GOP congresspeople soon after he took office, telling them that “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.” Figures like Cawthorn, Greene, Boebert, and Trump tend to fixate on “issues” that can’t really be legislated. They spend much of their time attacking “political correctness,” “wokeism,” and other culture-war boogeymen rather than talking about problems that Congress can actually address.

Perhaps at least some of the blame for our current 24/7, all-encompassing, empty-calorie political hatefest can be assigned to the fact that neither Americans nor their Congresspeople actually expect Congress to pass laws.

You’ll note that I use mostly Republican examples in the paragraphs above. As many have noted, the GOP does not really seem interested in governing anymore. They wager that, if they don’t even try to take responsibility for solving America’s problems — while at least some Democrats do — the media and the public will blame the Democrats for trying and failing while the Republicans hide behind procedural maneuvers like the filibuster. And you know what? It’s working.

What might it look like if the filibuster disappeared? Well, the onus would actually be on winning parties to fulfill their promises to voters. Trump and the Republicans would have had to put up or shut up on immigration and health care. Democrats would have to do the same on climate, inequality, healthcare, and guns. They might actually pass their preferred policies, and then voters could assess those policies and vote in future elections based on whether Congress actually improved their lives.

Some, like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, seem to believe that the filibuster encourages bipartisanship, but a quick look around America’s political landscape over the last two decades disproves that contention. Others might argue that we’d have too much legislative whiplash as new parties reversed each other’s policies every two years. I’d actually prefer this to the stasis we find ourselves in now — at least we’d be able to evaluate each party’s policies and vote accordingly.

The filibuster has emptied out American politics. It’s degraded any hope many Americans had that their government might actually work to make their lives better. It’s led to a content-free, conflict-laden version of politics that has raised our collective blood pressure and brought our democracy to the brink. All this because of a weird rule that the Senate backed its way into. Time for the filibuster to go.