The Filibuster: Schumer Gets it Half Right

Jefferson Smith's filibuster from the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Public Domain.
Jefferson Smith’s filibuster from the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Public Domain.

On January 19, US Senate Democrats tried and failed to pass a one-time exception to that body’s practice of the parliamentary delaying tactic known as the “filibuster.” Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) put together half of a slam-dunk plan that should have passed with overwhelming support. But it didn’t because, well, Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and those darn Republicans.

Yes, you read the above correctly. For probably the first time ever, I (partially) agree with Chuck Schumer on something.

Let’s start with the half he got wrong: He wanted the rules change to apply to one, and only one, piece of legislation: The Democratic Party’s “voting rights” bill.

The part he got right was suggesting a reversion of Senate rules to require the old-fashioned “talking filibuster.”

In the old days — that is, until 1987 — the filibuster required effort. To delay the body’s vote on a bill with majority support, a Senator in the minority had to take the floor for debate and refuse to give it up.

So long as the Senator kept talking (standing, without leaning on the podium), it took a super-majority vote (at one time, 67 votes, now 60) to end debate. But if the minority left the debate floor vacant for even  a moment, the majority could  proceed to a vote on the bill.

These days, all a minority Senator has to do to stop a bill from coming to to a vote is object, and if his or her party can marshal 40 or more votes against “cloture,” it can leave the bill in limbo eternal by pretending the matter is still “under debate.”

I’m firmly on record as favoring gridlock. In my opinion, the less the Senate “gets done,” the better off most Americans are. I’d support a constitutional amendment requiring a unanimous, or at least high super-majority vote, to actually pass any bill. It should be hard, not easy, to subject 330 million Americans to legislative dictates.

But I’m also in favor of requiring politicians to actually debate the bills they propose or oppose instead of just blocking consideration of those bills.

Senators spend millions getting elected to, and are paid $174,000 per year to serve in, what Edmund Burke called a “deliberative assembly.” They should have to deliberate their rear ends off to secure victory or impose defeat.

The “talking filibuster” should be restored as a permanent Senate rule instead of offered up as a one-off workaround.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.