As arcane U.S. Senate rules go, it’s a doozy: In a tightly divided body like the one we have now, the filibuster rule — which forces a need for 60 votes to pass most legislation — is a huge, some might say unsurpassable obstacle to the agenda of the majority party.
But getting rid of it, as some Democrats want the Senate to do, carries with it its own dangers — not the least of which being that the opposing party would get to use it to their advantage when they eventually return to power. (Of course, nothing’s to stop them from eliminating it themselves at that point, either — in the case of the current crop of Republicans, Mitch McConnell has not exactly been a stickler for tradition.)
As far as many Boston.com readers seem to be concerned, though, it’s a rule that has stood the test of time and needs to remain in place. Almost 60% of the more than 900 respondents who answered our question on the issue say it needs to stay, no ifs, ands, or buts.
“The filibuster is supposed to promote discourse and compromise. I don’t want to change the system because the people in the system act like children,” said Richard in Weymouth. And Kevin in Bellingham asked, “Why don’t you try making a bill that would pass with enough votes instead of changing the rules? There’s a thought.”
But the 23% who wanted to see it go were fairly vociferous as well, pointing out the filibuster’s history of being used to try to thwart civil rights legislation, and arguing that Republican intransigence has made eliminating it necessary to move the country forward.
“Republicans won’t compromise on a free sandwich, let alone any real legislation. Joe [Biden] must support the end of the filibuster so we can tiptoe through the tulips into a better future,” said Grant from Methuen. And Lisa from Billerica declared, “It is Jim Crow’s favorite procedural tactic, and it needs to go.”
Perhaps the most convincing arguments, though, came from the 16% who want to see the filibuster stay, but be changed or limited. “While the filibuster has been effective in limiting the power of the majority in the past, in today’s climate, 60 votes to override is too extreme,” said Edward from Scituate. “I would support something like a 52- or 53-vote override.”
That sounds like it might be a good compromise.
Here’s what Boston.com readers had to say on all sides of the issue.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Against eliminating the filibuster:
“Absolutely not. The founding fathers wanted debate, not the ability for a small majority to dominate policy.” — Jeff, Framingham
“Ending the filibuster would be nothing but a power grab by the current party in power. Many of the policies being pushed are not ‘overwhelmingly popular’ with the citizens of our nation, but only with those fairly far to the left of center. Each party has often used the filibuster in the past. It is there to make sure that the policies/laws that get passed are really in the best interest of our nation.” — Dave, Leominster
“The rules are in place to stop swings in laws every two years. Every law passed after a rule change like this would be reversed in two years if the Republicans pick back up one Senate seat. Those types of frequent law changes would be chaos.” — Eliott, Framingham
“The Dems have pulled stunts like this before, like getting rid of filibuster in appointing lower court justices. Where did that get them? It got them the end of the filibuster for appointments of Supreme Court justices when it came the Republicans’ turn when they had the Senate. A slippery slope indeed. Be careful what you wish for.”
“Minority opinions matter, even if you disagree with them. In the United States everyone is allowed to have a voice and an opinion. If you believe your opinion is the best course of action, then convince others to vote with you.”
“Major changes in law should have broader popular support than a one tie-breaking vote margin in a 50/50 Senate. American voters chose a closely divided government. If one side had broad support of the electorate the filibuster wouldn’t be an issue.” — Charles, Roxbury
“It’s a tradition that on balance has served the country well. It’s kept laws as passed more center right or center left, which is where the majority of the country is. The Senate as envisioned by our founders was supposed to be a moderating force, not a force for radical or ideological change.”
“The filibuster is a safety check on the unrelenting tyranny of the majority. The United States federal government is far too large with far too much power — and debt. The filibuster is one of the few mechanisms of government designed to protect the rights of the minority.” — Dan, Sharon
“Once the precedent is set to change the filibuster, it is changed for both parties. As we saw with the removal of the filibuster for judicial nominations, starting down the slippery slope doesn’t always work the way one hopes or intends.”
“If liberals do decide to change the filibuster, they had better be ready for the consequences if Republicans gain power again. It doesn’t take a genius to see how quickly Republicans would turn this on them … laws to crush public and private unions, undoing basically everything liberals want to do right now, etc.” — John, Needham
“So each time a different party takes the majority we will change the rules again to benefit that party. So in-fighting will go on forever it seems.” — Harry, Tewksbury
“Instead of changing the rules both parties should engage each other and work together to find compromises that best serve our country. That’s their job: to figure out a way to make it work for all of us.” — Eric, Needham
“As a Democrat, I hate the idea that a minority wouldn’t have strong input. This is not the answer and would make me question my future vote.”
“I was thankful in 2000 to work in the Senate. I got to meet Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) many times. As a younger guy, I was interested to learn more about the rules of the Senate, and the role of the Senate as a deliberative body, protecting the rights of the minority. To that end, he believed procedures like the filibuster were important. Many people believe it’s archaic, and when I started there I would have agreed it should be removed, but after that time and listening to Senator Byrd I believe it is an important part of the Senate.” — Jim, Somerville
In favor of eliminating the filibuster:
“It must be done for the good of the country. Republicans are not working for the betterment of the U.S., they are pure obstructionists and should be treated as such.”
“Democrats are so bad at fighting back. They lose power even when they control Washington, even though the majority of the country supports them. Republicans are total pros at changing the law so the minority rules.” — Chris, Boston
“Democrats are like Charlie Brown to the Republicans’ Lucy. Republicans don’t comprise, rarely let rules stand in the way of doing what they want, assert that ‘the system’ is rigged if they don’t get what they want, and tell the American public they want bi-partisanship, only to laugh while the Democrats make concession after concession on legislation that Republicans weren’t going to vote for anyway. AND, if Senate Democrats aren’t able to pass the voting rights act, they will NEVER have a majority in Congress again because Republicans will make it nearly impossible for majority Democrat areas to participate in our democratic system of government (in person or by mail). So yeah, end the filibuster now and stop the dead end that is the U.S. Senate!” — Tommy, Norton
“The history of the filibuster is one used by southern demigods to perpetuate slavery and oppression. It has no place in a real democracy.”
“Republicans will continue to stall and fight and vote against any attempts at bipartisanship. Voters asked for a democratic mandate — if that means getting rid of the filibuster, so be it.” — Justin, Jamaica Plain
“As soon as it gives him an advantage, Mitch McConnell will do it. As with Supreme Court nominations, the GOP has thrown out the courtly traditions of the Senate when it suits them. It would be foolish for Democrats to subject themselves to more stringent ‘rules’ than the Republicans.” — Brian, Westminster
“In the words of Donald Trump, ‘We Won. We can do it.’ Republicans have never cared what the Democrats think. Why should the Democrats be so magnanimous, especially when they’re actually trying to do some good for the people and the Republicans are just an impediment to progress?”
“It is time for the Democrats to put this country back on track. Republicans won’t compromise on a free sandwich, let alone any real legislation. Joe must support the end of the filibuster so we can tiptoe through the tulips into a better future.” — Grant, Methuen
“The filibuster enables largely rural, lightly populated states that represent a minority of Americans to control our country.”
“The Republicans have shown that they don’t want to compromise. They are making it harder for the American people to get relief so that their party looks better for the midterm elections. Let the Democrats pass their bills that will actually help the people of this country.” — Alaina, Shirley
“The filibuster was particularly useful to the racist Southern Democrats that did not want to pass an anti-lynching law in the early ’20s by Mass. Republican Henry Cabot Lodge. It has been used throughout our history to stop civil rights. It is Jim Crow’s favorite procedural tactic, and it needs to go.” — Lisa, Billerica
“Filibuster is one of the classic political tools that people outside of politics say, ‘Really? That’s even a thing?’ which tells you it shouldn’t be a thing. If Congress is going to vote in one direction, the parties should talk it out, and then the vote is the vote.”
“Nuke the filibuster from orbit and never speak its name again. In general, Republicans use the filibuster to block policies that 60, 70, 80 percent of Americans support. Democrats use the filibuster to block policies that only 40, 30, 20 percent of Americans actually want. If Democrats can’t pass major voting reforms right now, we will no longer have a functioning democracy within 10-15 years. Republicans all across the country are passing bills to create permanent minority Republican rule, by preventing likely Democrats from voting, or diluting the power of D votes through gerrymandering. If it’s not stopped by Congress now, Republicans will have a permanent filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and the filibuster will be irrelevant anyway.” — Josh, Medford
“It is important to remember that the filibuster is not in the Constitution. It is a rule that was made up in the early 1800s. Its purpose is to promote debate. It does not do that, and is something that the Senate has decided to adhere to with no reason other than previous Senates adhered to it. The cause that brought it to prominence was opposition to civil rights for African Americans by racist, segregationist senators. None of the states that have senates have this rule and rule by majority. It makes no sense for people to vote for senators only to have change be virtually impossible.”
In favor of keeping but changing the filibuster:
“The GOP and has no interest in supporting any bills sponsored by the Democrats. The stimulus bill the was just passed by the Senate did not receive a single Republican vote even though polls showed that about 40% of nationwide Republicans were in favor. I think the voting rights bill just passed by the House must be made into law, so the filibuster rule must be changed for this bill and not totally eliminated.” — Joe, Waltham
“The filibuster should be limited but not ended. The Senate has failed to act due to political gamesmanship for too long, thus ceding too much power to the executive branch, which in itself is worrisome no matter who the president.”
“The filibuster was NEVER meant to be a 60-vote hurdle for bills to pass. It was only a last ditch, painful way for the minority party to hold up voting on a bill as long as they could hold the floor. As a result, it was rarely used. Senate should return to the old method, which gives the minority party a check on the majority party, but it can only be used in the most dire of situations. The minority will be forced to participate in legislation to have influence.”
“Hate to see I agree with [Democratic Senator Joe] Manchin since I’m no fan of his, but eliminating the filibuster completely would tilt power too far in the direction of the majority. Limiting it and/or returning it to its true form and forcing the filibuster to the Senate floor and requiring the opposition to speak for the duration makes the most sense.” — Joe, Bellingham
“If a party wishes to use the filibuster then it should be more than a procedural vote. A senator should actually have to stand on the floor of the Senate and filibuster for all the world to see (and hear) as a means to prevent a majority vote on a piece of legislation. If a filibuster vote is to limit debate so that the bill can come to a final vote, then the Senate must actually be debating on the floor.”
“I am of the opinion that the rules of the filibuster should be changed to set a limit on how many times the filibuster can be used during the year, so the minority party has to use the filibuster wisely and really has to consider when they want to use their allotted filibusters. I would also change the rule so that the bill that has been filibustered can’t be brought before Congress during the same year in the event it doesn’t pass.”
“The filibuster needs serious reform but the legislature is an independent branch of government and any rule changes it undergoes should not happen because of pressure from the executive.” — Jay, Brighton
“While I don’t think it should be completely removed, there should be limits on when it can be used in an effort to keep the government moving forward. Having the filibuster unchecked only adds to the contention and drama between the parties. Honestly, I wish politics would do away with all of the pageantry and just focus on the job they were elected to do.” — Kara, Boston
“It needs to be painful so that only the most controversial legislation becomes embroiled in this process. Which would also mean that the party or parties responsible would be very visible to the American public.”
“Unfortunately in recent years our government has become polarized where it seems almost every vote follows strict party lines. In this environment the filibuster has ceased to be a tool for consensus, but instead is used purely to block almost any legislation proposed by the other party. The filibuster is essential and should remain in place for issues such as judicial nominations, where Senator McConnell’s abuse of the Senate rules has virtually broken the spirit of our judicial system. However for legislative purposes it doesn’t matter what rules we have in place if the two parties can’t get back to the kind of consensus and compromise we used to have in the Senate until very recently.” — Robert, Cohasset
“The filibuster rule encourages moderation. Major legislation would need to reflect an open exchange of views and maybe lead to changes to legislation that has too many narrow, ideological ‘quirks.’ But I prefer a system of ‘reconsideration’ in which a blocked bill can be brought forward again and then voted up or down.” — JD, Boston
“While the filibuster has been effective in limiting the power of the majority in the past, in today’s climate, 60 votes to override is too extreme. It virtually guarantees that the minority party wields the power. I would support something like a 52- or 53-vote override. The current proposal to make the minority party work for the filibuster may also be a good compromise.” — Edward, Scituate
Boston.com occasionally interacts with readers by conducting informal polls and surveys. These results should be read as an unscientific gauge of readers’ opinion.
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