What exactly is the filibuster?

The filibuster is a simple procedure that allows the minority party to block legislation from advancing in the Senate.

The filibuster allows a party to keep debate open on a legislative item until the Senate votes to close it. Closing debate requires 60 votes (in a process called “cloture”) - so if you don’t have 60 votes, you can’t move to a final vote on the bill itself.

The result? Instead of needing a simple majority of 51 votes to pass legislation, you actually need to get 60 votes, or bypass the filibuster (more on that in our next newsletter) to accomplish anything.

More info on what the filibuster is: Analysis | It is time once again to explain what the filibuster is and isn’t

The filibuster is undemocratic

The filibuster is not required under the Constitution - in fact, it’s not even mentioned in the Constitution - and it empowers the minority to block the will of voters and of the American public.

The first filibuster took place in 1837 (and the practice wasn’t given a name until 1850) and even then, it was used rarely, and looked different than today.

Cloture - the motion to end a filibuster - was created in 1917 for the Senate to have a way to move forward through a filibuster. Unfortunately, this new provision had the opposite effect, and the result (how we now know the filibuster to be used today) was that it was now possible for a minority of senators to block bills by voting down cloture motions.

Use of the filibuster has gone WAY up

Because there is no official process to start a filibuster, its use throughout American history is hard to track, but one thing we can track the use of is cloture, because it’s a motion that must be filed. And that has gone up - way, way, way, way up.

Motions to break a filibuster filed in the 53 years between 1917 and 1970: fewer than 60.

Motions to break a filibuster filed in the 6 years between 2009 and 2015: more than 500.

In the modern-day U.S. Senate, almost every bill is filibustered. So in essence, nearly every bill needs a 60-vote majority in order to pass.

And while both parties have used the filibuster, it has been weaponized to a greater extent than ever before by Republicans in order to kill landmark pieces of legislation, from civil rights to gun violence prevention and beyond. 

There is no more talking filibuster, it’s just pressing a button

Historically, a filibuster would invoke the image of a politician so passionate about an issue that they were willing to stand and speak for hours and hours - the longest on record was over 24 hours, by Strom Thurmond in 1957 - in order to make their argument.

However, the modern-day filibuster isn’t about talking. It’s about voting. Senators generally no longer physically occupy the Senate floor and speak in order to block a vote—they simply announce their intent to filibuster a bill, and the Senate either holds a cloture vote or moves on to other business (killing the bill).

The racist history of the filibuster

In the Civil Rights era, the filibuster was frequently used to crush legislation meant to end racist segregation laws. Political scientists studying the filibuster found that of all of the bills between 1917 and 1994 believed to have failed due to a filibuster, a full half of them were civil rights bills (including anti-lynching bills in 1922 and 1935).

That record 24-hour filibuster by Strom Thurmond in 1957? An effort to stop the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Strikingly, political scientists also found that senators’ views on the filibuster were linked to their view on civil rights: senators in favor of reforming the filibuster generally supported civil rights legislation, while senators who liked the filibuster as-is and wanted no reform opposed civil rights legislation.

More info on the filibuster’s racist history: Racist past, racist present: End the filibuster to make progress for all


Why is the filibuster a problem for workers?

In 2020, CWA members fought tooth and nail to get Congress to pass the PRO Act, the most comprehensive piece of pro-worker legislation in decades. The PRO Act would, among other things, protect strikes and other protest activities, make it easier to bargain, and help strengthen protections for workers forming a union. It passed in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives but never came to a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Fast forward to January 2021: CWAers come out in force to help elect two new Senators in Georgia, Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, giving Democrats a (very slim) majority in the Senate. Good news for the PRO Act and other legislation for workers, right? Not so fast. The filibuster means that it will take 60 votes to pass the PRO Act in the Senate.

The last major labor law reform package, the “Employee Free Choice Act” was defeated in 2007 - despite having majority support - because Republicans threatened to filibuster it.  


So what do we do about the filibuster? How do we make sure our bills get passed?

There are several things we can do about the filibuster. We’ll dive deeper into them in our next newsletter, next week.

In the meantime, click here to register for our webinar on April 22nd: The Filibuster & the Fight for Our Democracy.