It’s in our nature to make new again what’s old. Fashion trends blow up and bow out, only to rise again decades later with no lessons learned — e.g. aviator sunglasses.
In no section of American life is this more true than in our politics, specifically the theater of political process and debate.
In recent weeks, the filibuster, and all of the baggage that comes with it, has reared its head in the national news cycle.
Facing a 50/50 split in the Senate, some members of the Democratic party and left-leaning activists want to see it go away. While Republicans and some elected Democrats are saying, “nah, it’s here to stay.”
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin is one such Democrat who has balked at proposed rule changes that would require the minority party to have 41 negative votes to maintain a filibuster. He did however say he wouldn’t mind making the filibuster “a little bit more painful” for the filibustering group.
The filibuster gums up the system; that is seemingly the point after all, theoretically — to allow the current minority party the opportunity to not get completely run over.
Activists like the Rev. William Barber have said, “We can no longer have an impoverished democracy because a minority group of senators want to shut down open debate and shut down bringing issues to the floor, address the critical issues that face us as a people in this nation.”
The filibuster has been used to block civil rights legislation in the past.
We’re not here to take a side on the issue, just provide a bit of historical context.
The filibuster, although not by that name, showed up in the very first Senate session, when on Sept. 22, 1789, members of the Virginia delegations talked the time away so a bill could not get passed.
In 1806, the Senate, acting on the advice of then Vice President Aaron Burr, removed a provision allowing a simple majority to force a vote on “the underlying question being debated” from its rules, making the process of the filibuster possible.
By the 1830s, “talking a bill to death” was common enough to attain the name — filibuster — a mix of Dutch and Spanish.
In 1841, the Democratic minority frustrated a Whig senator so much, with their efforts to drain the clock on a bill establishing a national bank, that he threatened to change the rules. They, in turn, threatened to invoke even longer filibusters.
These early filibusters lead to what’s now called “cloture,” a formal process in the Senate rules to end a filibuster by ending debate and bringing a vote.
As time progressed and the filibuster became more frequently used, in 1917 the Senate adopted Rule 22, which allowed it to invoke cloture and limit debate with a two-thirds majority vote.
This process was first used in 1919 to end a filibuster on the Treaty of Versailles.
The longest individual speech in filibuster was in 1957 by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act.
While the current debate rages, it’s important to know, it’s not a new, it’s not frankly a partisan issue either, in the sense that one party is always for and the other opposed; it’s a wart of American political life, which comes and goes as the political winds blow.