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Why Getting Rid of the Filibuster Is Still a Good Idea

by Julian E. Zelizer on Apr 27, 2005

Julian E. Zelizer

Democrats are making a major mistake by opposing filibuster reform.

By opposing the proposal of Sen. Bill Frist, the Republican Senate majority leader, to prohibit filibusters against judicial nominees, Democrats will miss a massive opportunity to reform one of the most outdated and anti-majoritarian practices in American politics. And, as liberal Democrats who attacked the Electoral College after the 2000 election reminded us, majoritarian democracy can be a good thing.

If Democrats are searching for a reason to support filibuster reform, they can look at their own history. In the 1960s and early-1970s, liberal Democrats and Republicans attacked the filibuster as anti-democratic, inefficient, and a symbol of legislative incompetence. Liberals in the earlier post-World War II period were even bolder in their aspiration. Their goal was to transform the Senate into a strictly majoritarian institution where a simple majority of senators could end a filibuster and pass a piece of legislation.

Late in the 1950s, liberal giants in both parties, such as Hubert H. Humphrey, Jacob K. Javits, Paul H. Douglas, Joseph S. Clark and Walter F. Mondale made filibuster reform a top priority. It became so important that civil rights organizations in the 1950s placed committee and filibuster reform at the top of their political agenda. The NAACP listed filibuster reform as important as ending lynching.

This struggle culminated in 1975 when Republican Vice President Nelson Rockefeller intervened in Senate deliberations and allowed the reform to pass. Although reformers did not obtain a strictly majoritarian system, senators made it easier to end a filibuster by requiring that three-fifths, rather than two-thirds, of the Senate was needed to obtain cloture (the process by which a filibuster is ended).

Opponents, such as the conservative southerner James Allen, warned that the change would bring havoc to the institution. Reformers praised the change. A few liberal voices were disappointed that the filibuster survived at all.

Today’s Democrats can learn from this older generation of liberals in the 1950s and 1960s who argued that the filibuster was fundamentally anti-democratic, especially since the Constitution, undemocratically, already granted small and large states equal representation in the Senate.

In his first year as a senator, Humphrey enraged southern conservatives by championing civil rights and legislative reform. He went so far as to call the “undemocratic” filibuster “evil.” In the 1950s, the filibuster was the ultimate symbol of how procedure blocked action on civil rights. Writing for The New Republic, Sen. Douglas explained that filibuster reform may seem to be “a barren and arid matter of parliamentary procedure. It involves, however, the whole question as to whether Congress will ever be able to pass civil-rights legislation.”

The filibuster, according to its critics in the 1950s and 1960s, was a major reason that the executive branch gained power over the legislative branch. They argued that the inefficiency of the filibuster facilitated the “imperial” power of the presidency. Given that a supermajority — that is, 60 votes — is needed to pass legislation, Senate deliberations are an agonizing process. Minnesota’s Walter Mondale lamented to colleagues that filibusters “impaired” the ability of the institution to function.

Liberals of the postwar period also liked to remind colleagues that the filibuster symbolized what many Americans disliked about their legislative branch. A moderate Republican, Robert Packwood of Oregon, pointed out that the filibuster was the favorite media example of how Congress did not work. He was right. In 1964, CBS correspondent Roger Mudd reported outside the Senate every night with a clock superimposed next to his face to symbolize how long it was taking the Senate to reach a decision.

Filibuster reform has a rich liberal tradition. Although liberal Democrats might lose some key judicial battles as a result of filibuster reform, the change proposed by Republicans would make the Senate more responsible to the majority of Americans. In the long run, it would bring the Senate more in line with 21st-century understandings of democracy.


Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of History at Boston University and the author of "On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1945-2000" (2004), is a writer for the History News Service.