(Trends Wide) — Filibusterism: we hear that word every time there is a complex and lengthy debate in the United States Congress. This is a type of parliamentary obstruction. But what is it and why is it such an issue in American bipartisan politics?
When a senator or a group of senators introduces a bill in the United States Congress, the text goes to a committee that discusses it, schedules hearings, and proposes amendments. If a simple majority of the members of that commission votes in favor of the bill, it passes the plenary session of the Senate for debate. And after the debate, a simple majority is needed for the project to be approved.
It sounds simple, but it is not.
The problem that Democrats and Republicans have faced for decades is in the procedure that takes place just before the final vote in the plenary of the Senate, the vote to end the debate on the bill.
A norm that arose by accident (and the origin of filibustering)
It is in this procedure before the vote that the efforts of the party with the greatest representation can be shipwrecked, since a supermajority of 60 votes out of 100 possible is needed to end the discussion.
This norm is not written in the Constitution. In fact, historical records agree that it emerged by accident in 1806.
Debates in the full Senate ended with a simple majority vote, as well as in the House of Representatives. But then Vice President Aaron Burrl considered it an outdated practice and asked to suspend it.
Without the need for a majority to end the debate, some senators resorted to an unusual delaying weapon to shipwreck bills: debate, debate and continue debating.
This obstructionist tactic is what we know as filibusterismo, which comes from the Spanish word filibusteros, a reference to the pirates who raided the Caribbean islands.
To control eternal debates as a dilatory practice, the Senate approved Rule 22 in 1917, which eliminated filibustering if two-thirds voted to end the debate.
In 1975 the Senate reduced those figures by 60 votes and since then this is the magic figure for a supermajority to pass a bill without major obstacles.
These days, stonewalling is implicit. When everyone realizes there aren’t 60 votes to limit debate, senators usually don’t spend much time debating. They just continue. When a senator stages an all-night speech, the outcome is usually predetermined.
If the rules are changed and only a simple majority is required to limit debate, Republicans will still have other delaying tactics to employ. They just couldn’t block most votes entirely.
But there is a way to get rid of the 60-vote requirement: the nuclear option.
The nuclear option to end filibusterism
If they do not reach the numbers to meet the standard, then the standard is modified.
When legislations are debated in which the promoters of the bill face great obstacles, there is talk of resorting to a process known as the “nuclear option”. It’s a phrase that boils down to changing the rules of the Senate to pass laws with a simple majority.
Senators need 60 votes to do anything in the Senate except change the rules: that takes just 51 votes.
Senators consider themselves to be part of the “greatest deliberative body in the world.” It’s a moot point, but to protect the minority party and make sure no one does anything without a full debate, Senate rules require that 60 of 100 senators agree to vote to move the legislation forward. In the fancy language they speak on Capitol Hill, limiting debate and proceeding with a vote is called “invoking a shutdown.”
In reality, only 51 votes are needed to pass legislation. But, due to procedural rules, 60 are required to invoke the closure and get to the actual vote. By requiring only 51 votes to limit debate, this would change the entire character of the chamber. Instead of being forced to get the minority party — Republicans at the moment — the majority party could pass anything it could get a simple majority on.
The idea is that this would figuratively “blow up” the Senate. For now, a simple majority Senate excites many Democrats who want to pass more legislation. It also scares Republicans, whose strategy is to stall everything on Capitol Hill.
The nuclear option has happened twice so far, the first in 2013, when then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the 60-vote threshold so that a simple majority would end the debate. and vote in plenary for the confirmation of officials appointed by the president and by judges who were not for the Supreme Court.
In 2017, Republican leader Mitch McConnell did the same, but to get justices confirmed to the Supreme Court.
The symbolism of a “nuclear option” portends a kind of mutually assured destruction in the future, to borrow another term from the Cold War. Democrats will not always control the Senate. And when the Republicans are in charge, you can bet they’ll be paid back in kind.
Where does the threshold of 60 votes come from?
It’s in the Senate rules. Read the chapter on closure.
But the rules have changed over time. Until 1949, for example, according to the Congressional Research Service, senators could not even move to limit debate (invoke closure) on appointments.
According to the Senate website, Henry Clay was the first senator to threaten nuclear legislation, back in 1841. Until 1975, it actually took 67 votes to overcome a filibuster.
The most famous examples occurred during the civil rights era, when southerners of both parties blocked equal rights legislation. It took 60 days of filibustering to find the votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
What Joe Biden is looking for in 2022
President Joe Biden is advocating for a new exception. He asks to reduce the condition of the 60 votes to approve, with a simple majority, two electoral reforms that, according to the president, seek to counteract Republican efforts at the state level to hinder the electoral participation of minorities and influence the monitoring of the vote count.
To approve the use of the nuclear option. Biden and the Democratic Party need a simple majority in the Senate. Currently, the government party has 48 Democratic legislators, two independents who vote with the party and the tiebreaker vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. This would achieve the figure of 51 votes. But there are two Democratic senators who oppose the nuclear option: John Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both consider it to be a dangerous rule because the Republican Party could use it when it has a majority again.
For Biden and the rest of his party, protecting the electoral system is worth the risk.
More and more Democrats support removing filibuster, at least in some circumstances. Most of the important legislation — tax cuts under the Trump administration and health care under the Obama administration — required finding a way around filibuster rules. In those two cases, party leaders exploited budget rules.
But that’s an imperfect solution and wouldn’t work for voting rights, the issue most Democrats argue is worth changing the rules about.
Democrats want to impose new national rules to protect voter rights, while Republicans in key states are scrambling to limit access to mail-in voting and otherwise make it harder to cast a ballot.
But the consequences of the nuclear option would extend beyond voting rights. You cannot go back from this measure. That’s why more moderate Democrats like Senators Manchin and Sinema still disagree.
With information from Edwin Giraldo and Zachary B. Wolf