Make Them Hear You: The Filibuster

Make Them Hear You! is a weekly feature on KGNU, produced by Chris Mohr, letting listeners know how they can have their voices heard on issues up before Congress. You can hear it Wednesday mornings at 8.20am during the Morning Magazine.

Just weeks into Joe Biden’s presidency, it is clear that he faces major obstacles in pursuing his agenda. The Senate cloture rule—which requires 60 votes to cut off debate on most measures—is a high hurdle. Democrats’ Senate majority rests on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, and even the process of organizing the Senate’s committees has been bogged down with a debate over the filibuster issue. Democrats have controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress for only four of the last 28 years, so as Robert Reich says, this is a tiny window of opportunity.

The filibuster was not part of the founders’ original vision of the Senate. Today, Senate rules require just a simple majority to actually pass a bill, but several procedural steps along the way require a supermajority of 60 votes to end debate on bills. If fewer than 60 senators—a supermajority of the chamber—support cloture, that’s when we often say that a measure has been filibustered.

Exceptions include nominations to executive branch positions and federal judgeships on which only a simple majority is required to end debate. And the budget reconciliation process, allows a simple majority to adopt certain bills addressing entitlement spending and revenue provisions, thereby prohibiting a filibuster.

One way to ban the filibuster would be to create a new Senate precedent, which can be created by a senator raising a point of order. If the presiding officer (typically a member of the Senate) agrees, that ruling establishes a new precedent.

The Senate could also move to weaken the filibuster without eliminating it entirely. A Senate majority could ban filibusters on particular motions but otherwise leave the 60-vote rule intact.

Senators from both parties have worried that when they become the minority party in the future, they would no longer be able to slow down the legislative process directed by the majority party. But Robert Reich is spearheading a movement to eliminate the filibuster entirely. For starters, without the filibuster, we could see a number of laws enacted which enjoy strong support by a large majority of Americans, including Republicans and independents, like the COVID relief bill, a hike in the minimum wage, a ban on assault weapons, voting rights legislation, and much more. Robert Reich and others warn us that the clock is ticking. In two years, voters will be answering a different version of the question Ronald Reagan once immortalized: “Is your life better now than it was two years ago?” Within 18 months, if the answer for most Americans is not “Yes,” the Republicans will very likely take back the Senate and perhaps the House in 2022, as often happens in midterms.  If you have thoughts on eliminating the filibuster, you can contact Senator Chuck Schumer as well as Colorado Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennett.

If you have thoughts on the filibuster, you can contact the White House as well as your Senators and Congressperson.