News Archive 2009-2018

Bowdoin Professors on the Senate’s Filibuster Bust Archives

Illustration credit: Abby McBrideOn Nov. 21 the Senate changed its rules to limit the use of filibusters for blocking executive and judicial nominees. “This change has been bandied about for more than 50 years, by both parties,” said Professor of Government Andrew Rudalevige. “When southerners were threatening to filibuster over civil rights in 1957, it was clear that this was a possible parliamentary option – to change the rules by a majority vote.”

For most of the 20th century, filibusters were employed relatively rarely and reserved for particularly important issues. They did not necessarily pose an insurmountable impediment because “you had liberal Republicans, you had conservative Democrats, and it was not that uncommon to build cross-party alliances,” Rudalevige said. “It became sort of just part of the lore of the Senate, that every senator could speak as long as they wanted to,” he said.

But filibuster use began to surge toward the end of the 20th century, reaching record highs during the Obama administration and ultimately triggering the change in Senate rules earlier this week. “If the norm is dead, the Democrats figure, why not dance on its grave,” Rudalevige said.

Professor of Government Janet Martin believes that the Senate’s dysfunction would have been better solved with other actions. “The two leaders have reached a point where they are no longer following the informal roles of getting along, and working out deals, and leading their members to compromise.” Martin argued “that a change of leadership would probably be more desirable than ending a process that’s been there to protect minority interest for a long time.”

“I think if anything we’ll see an escalation of procedural war,” Martin said, since there are other procedures besides filibusters that can block action. “The problem is that any of the dilatory actions that will be taken will be less visible because they won’t be understood,” she said, “and it’s not going to be as easy for the Democrats to hold Republicans accountable for the blocking of appointments.”

Despite that risk, Rudalevige said that the Democrats believed they had little to lose in the face of existing opposition  – and the looming possibility that the Republicans themselves would carry out the threat of ending filibusters a couple of years down the road.  “I think the Democrats decided that the downside was pretty minimal.”