May 27, 2005


The Filibuster Anachronism

By Dr. Humberto Caspa

Lets get real. The filibuster prerogative is a permissive political device as well as an undemocratic mechanism by which members of the Senate undermine legislation through, at times, demagoguery and irrational rhetoric. In the past, Southern senators often used it to obstruct progressive legislation; today liberal democrats have become its most staunch defenders; and it is likely that right-wing Republicans will use it again later.

In the short run, ending the filibuster might hinder our liberal values, but in the long run, it will bring benefits to our democratic institutions. The filibuster ought to go for good.

The central objective of the filibuster has its roots in the Constitution. Our Founding Fathers wanted to restrain a so-called populist majority from determining the agenda in Congress, particularly in the Senate. From the outset, it was essentially an undemocratic device that protected the interests of a small economic minority of landowners in the countryside and a, rather, incipient group of entrepreneurs in the urban areas.

The use of the filibuster has increased over time. It was during the 1950s and 1960s, however, when more representatives in the Senate began to use it, and even abuse it, as the Civil Rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, pushed the government to make radical changes, especially to undue segregation in public schools and to reduce any form of prejudice within other governmental institutions.

While most people cried for tangible changes, a small number of senators decided to virtually take hostage the whole country. They obstructed desegregation legislation by relying solely on the filibuster prerogative. In 1957, senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina stood up on the Senate floor talking for more than twenty-four hours to stop the enactment of Civil Rights Act. This right-wing effort never succeeded. Not only did the government passed the bill in favor of African-Americans, but also, later in 1975, a coordinated effort of the President and representatives in Congress restrained the power of the filibuster. Since then only 60 of 100 votes in the Senate is needed to defeat a filibuster.

However, the filibuster survived, and it continues to be as undemocratic as usual. Interesting to mention here is that when Republicans had minority status in the Senate, they turned into the utmost defenders of the filibuster, whereas the Democrats sought to limit its power. Now that control of the Senate has shifted to the right –Democrats are on the minority end—, Republicans look to get rid of it.

During the Bush administration, Democrats have used it to stop right-wing ideologues from seeking high-ranking positions in the government, particularly in the federal-court system. As a result, 10 of the 52 Bush’s nominees to the Appellate Court were dismissed.

The Democrats’ fear to loose the filibuster prerogative has its logic, but it isn’t a valid argument. It is estimated that between June and August, Chief Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist will quit his job because of health issues. Some Democrats believe that President Bush, pressed by right-wing iconoclast and religious fanatics like Pat Robertson, will nominate someone whose ideological and political views reflect the far right of his party. Amending Roe vs. Wade, which has defined women’s liberties and has allowed legal abortions, has been one of the major objectives of the Bush Administration.

Democrats are right that a filibuster might stop the arrival of a conservative judge in the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, it continues to be an undemocratic prerogative and it doesn’t fit within modern democratic institutions. If radical candidates are to be eliminated from holding high-ranking positions, representatives in Congress ought to deal with them on the House floor or the Senate floor. It shouldn’t be a special privilege of a few politicians in Congress.

Indeed, the country and society is going through a conservative trend today, but this is hardly a phenomenon. Very soon the dynamics in Capitol Hill will suffer some major changes in scope and substance; then we will be thinking about why we didn’t get rid of the filibusters.

Dr. Humberto Caspa, Profesor de economía política en la Universidad Estatal de California San Marcos. E-mail:

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