Glamorization of the filibuster must end

"Is this how American government is supposed to work from here on out?" said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Trump again vetoes resolution blocking national emergency for border wall Trump invites congressional leaders to meeting on Turkey MORE (R-Ky.) when recently proposing rule changes that would weaken the filibuster. "Whichever party loses the White House basically prohibits the new president from standing up an administration?

McConnell’s words echo those of the preceding Senate Majority Leader, Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTrump thanks Reid for warning Democrats not to underestimate him Reid warns Democrats not to underestimate Trump Harry Reid predicts Trump, unlike Clinton, won't become more popular because of impeachment MORE (D-Nev.), back in 2013 when launching the first modern-day “nuclear option” to suppress the minority. During this six-year stretch, filibuster proponents have come out in force, contending that the minority must be able to “[protect] against the tyranny of the majority.” They warn against upending “Senate tradition.” They equate banning the practice to “extremism.”


These arguments might hold water in Frank Capra’s America, but not today. First, our democracy already has “protections against the tyranny of the majority" — elections, separation of powers, freedom of speech and the press and so on.

If the filibuster were akin to the First Amendment to the Constitution, then its recent abuses would be on par with committing slander or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. In the last 100 years, the Senate has voted on 1,540 cloture motions — the procedure for capping the time permitted for considering a bill or nominee or some other issue. More than half of these motions (785) have occurred in the past 12 years.

Unrestrained filibustering neutralizes narrow majorities. If the Senate has lost the will to limit its deployment, then the tool has outlived its purpose.

Second, Senate traditions are not sacrosanct. They are not eternal by design. If our Constitution can be amended, why must traditions remain untouchable? The Senate paved the way for the filibuster through a possibly inadvertent rule adjustment in 1806.

It took 31 years before a senator seized on the change and initiated a filibuster. Simply put, there are no filibuster norms upon which to build traditions. There are only clear divisions: what the filibuster once was and what it has become.

Third, there is nothing extreme about ending a practice so weaponized that its Senate champions change based on election results. The filibuster is emblematic of our country’s rising political antagonism and dysfunction. Elections are no longer decision points; they are launching points for two-year skirmishes intended to embarrass the other side in advance of the next election.

A November 2018 Gallup poll identified the most important issues confronting voters in advance of the midterm elections. Health care came in at number one, with 80 percent of respondents listing it as “extremely important” or “very important.”

The next five most important issues — all at 70 percent or higher in the “extremely important” plus “very important” categories — were the economy, immigration, how women are treated, gun policy and taxes.

Will our current leaders address any of these issues in a meaningful, long-lasting way? Of course not. Yes, the filibuster is supposed to encourage compromise, forcing the majority to work with elements of the minority. But these days politicians are more inclined to kick the can down the road and hope for a better electoral outcome next time.

As a result, the filibuster has devolved into an overtly political tool applied early and often to stymie the majority, run out the clock and turn enough voters against the majority to boost the minority’s electoral fortunes. When you’re in charge, you’re supposed to get things done. The filibuster helps the minority undercut the will of the people — and then blame the majority for letting it happen.

The glamorization of the filibuster must end. It has become an open form of resistance — an overt rejection of election results. It is trench warfare, where one side has all the firepower, the other side has a nearly impenetrable shield and little of substance is accomplished. 

Let the majority claim the battlefield. Let it interpret its mandate and act with greater ease. And let it be held more fully accountable for its actions. Because that is our best hope for tackling our most pressing issues.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. His nearly 25-year career has included stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms and for a consulting firm. He has authored three books and has shared political insights on CNN, Fox News and dozens of radio stations across the country.