Friday 1/22: Get ready to flush the filibuster!

Image and new movie date: In Frank Capra’s classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart’s everyman hero uses a filibuster to shame a corrupt Senate baron into confessing his schemes.

We have only 2 years before the next election and we have a lot to fix NOW!

This is a great video explainer from 2019 explaining what a Senate filibuster is.

The potential of the Democratic majority in the Senate actually passing progressive legislation has so alarmed now-Minority (oh, say that again!) Leader Mitch McConnell, that he’s already begun obstructing Joe Biden’s policy agenda. He’s threatened to delay an Organizing Resolution (which determines the power-sharing agreement in the 50-50 Senate) unless Democrats commit to keeping the archaic filibuster rule intact, hobbling ourselves on his hope that a majority of GOP will be ushered in at the midterms.

However, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) stated: “I don’t think there is any way that Democrats would find it acceptable to invoke new rules that McConnell certainly never volunteered to abide by himself.” Encourage and embolden our senators by calling them!

Minimal script: I’m calling from [zip code] and I want Senator [___] to be sure that Majority Speaker Schumer is willing to end the filibuster as necessary to get the will of 81 million Americans pushed through the Senate.


  • Senator Feinstein: email, DC (202) 224-3841, LA (310) 914-7300, SF (415) 393-0707, SD (619) 231-9712, Fresno (559) 485-7430
  • and Senator Padilla: email, DC (202) 224-3553, LA (310) 231-4494, SAC (916) 448-2787, Fresno (559) 497-5109, SF (415) 981-9369, SD (619) 239-3884 (Updated contacts still in-progress.)
  • Who is my representative/senator?:

Deeper Dive

Today’s “Deeper Dive” consists of partial essays from three people we very much respect: Ezra Klein, editor-at-large at Vox, Robert Reich, and Heather Cox Richardson, an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College. You can sign up for her amazing daily columns here or follow her on Facebook. describes other ways to get around the filibuster here.

Ezra Klein: (full article here.) “If Joe Biden wins the White House, and Democrats take back the Senate, there is one decision that will loom over every other. It is a question that dominated no debates and received only glancing discussion across the campaign, and yet it is the master choice that will either unlock their agenda or ensure they fail to deliver on their promises.

That decision? Whether the requirement for passing a bill through the Senate should be 60 votes or 51 votes. Whether, in other words, to eliminate the modern filibuster, and make governance possible again. 

Virtually everything Democrats have sworn to do — honoring John Lewis’s legacy by strengthening the right to vote, preserving the climate for future generations by decarbonizing America, ensuring no gun is sold without a background check, raising the minimum wage, implementing universal pre-K, ending dark money in politics, guaranteeing paid family leave, offering statehood to Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, reinvigorating unions, passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — hinges on this question. 

If Democrats decide — and it is crucial to say that it would be a decision, a choice — to leave the 60-vote threshold in place, that entire agenda, and far more beyond it, is dead. All those primary debates, all those grand ideas on Joe Biden’s “vision” page, all those mailers and press releases and speeches and vows, will be revealed as promises they never meant to keep. All it takes to eliminate the filibuster, and to unlock that agenda, is 51 votes. All it takes to annihilate that agenda’s barest hope of passage is to do nothing. And doing nothing is always the easiest choice for politicians to make.

Jonathan Chait writes in New York magazine, the US Senate is “the most powerful force for structural racism in American life.” The Senate grants unusual power to small states, and small states tend to be whiter than big states. In the New York Times, David Leonhardt calculated how many senators each racial group gets per million people. White Americans — the racial majority — get 0.35 senators per million people; Black Americans have 0.26; Asian Americans are right alongside them, with 0.25; and Hispanics are last in senatorial power and representation, with 0.19.The Senate is a uniquely undemocratic institution, and the filibuster has been a bulwark against even mild pursuit of equity.

By any normal standard of democracy, fairness, or representation, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico deserve the opportunity to be states. They are filled with American citizens. They pay taxes. They are, each of them, bigger than states that currently enjoy Senate representation: DC is larger than Vermont or Wyoming; and Puerto Rico is larger than DC, and also than Iowa, Nevada, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Alaska.

The primary obstacle to DC and Puerto Rico being offered the political representation they deserve is, yes, the filibuster. But an effect of their disenfranchisement — and a cause of it — is that DC and Puerto Rico’s exclusion from representation keeps the Senate, and thus the distribution of American political power, whiter than it would otherwise be.

Heather Cox Richardson: (full column here) “The other story from today with a long history behind it is that the Senate is currently unable to organize itself because Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is insisting that the Democrats commit to leaving the filibuster intact. The filibuster is peculiar to the Senate, and is a procedure designed to draw out the session to prevent a vote on a measure. It is an old system, but it is not exactly hallowed: it was a bit of a mistake.

The Constitution provides for the Senate to pass most measures by a simple majority. It also permits each house of Congress to write its own rules. According to historian Brian Bixby, the House discovered early on that it needed a procedure to stop debate and get on with a vote. The Senate, a much smaller body, did not. 

In the 1830s, senators in the minority discovered they could prevent votes on issues they disliked simply by talking the issue to death. In 1917, when both President Woodrow Wilson and the American people turned against the filibuster after senators used it to stop Wilson from preparing for war, the Senate reluctantly adopted a procedure to end a filibuster using a process called “cloture,” but that process is slow and it takes a majority of three-fifths of all members. Today, that is 60 votes. 

From 1917 to 1964, senators filibustered primarily to stop civil rights legislation. The process was grueling: a senator had to talk for hours, as South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond did in 1957, when he spoke for 24 hours straight to stand against a civil rights act. But the need to speed up Senate business meant that in the 1960s and 1970s, senators settled on procedural filibusters that enabled an individual senator to kill a measure simply by declaring opposition, rather than through the old-fashioned system of all-night speeches. The Senate also declared some measures, such as budget resolutions, immune to filibusters. Effectively, this means that it takes 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to get anything–other than absolutely imperative financial measures– done.

In 2013, frustrated by the Republicans’ filibustering of President Obama’s judicial nominees and picks for a number of officials in the Executive Branch, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) prohibited filibusters on certain Executive Branch and judicial nominees. In 2017, when Democrats tried to filibuster the nomination of Supreme Court Judge Neil Gorsuch, then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell killed the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, as well. 

The filibuster remains in place for legislation. 

The Democrats currently have no plans to try to kill the filibuster altogether—they do not have the votes, as Joe Manchin (D-WV) has openly opposed the idea and others are leery—but they want to keep the threat of killing it to prevent McConnell and the Republicans from abusing it and stopping all Democratic legislation. 

This impasse means that senators are not organizing the Senate. New senators have not been added to existing committees, which leaves Republicans in the majority in key committees. This is slowing down Biden’s ability to get his nominees confirmed. 

What’s at stake here is actually quite an interesting question. While the new Senate is split evenly—50 Democrats, 50 Republicans—the 50 Democrats in the Senate represent over 41.5 million more people than the 50 Republicans represent. The filibuster means that no legislation can pass Congress without the support of 10 Republicans. Essentially, then, the fight over the filibuster is a fight not just about the ability of the Democrats to get laws passed, but about whether McConnell and the Republicans, who represent a minority of the American people, can kill legislation endorsed by lawmakers who represent quite a large majority.

We are in an uncomfortable period in our history in which the mechanics of our democracy are functionally anti-democratic. The fight over the filibuster might seem dull, but it’s actually a pretty significant struggle as our lawmakers try to make the rules of our system fit our changing nation. 

Robert Reich

Do you have more time?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s