With the swearing-in of the new 113th Congress on Thursday, the unsexy issue of Senate rule reform — and as a result, filibuster reform — is among the first big issue items on the docket.
Filibusters have become a sort of political WMD — a crushing weapon that can easily derail any piece of legislation in the Senate. The filibuster, where a senator talks unimpeded at length, allowing a lone member to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a given proposal, can only be overcome by a vote of 60 senators. Filibusters are otherwise fatal to a bill, especially since a single bill can be filibustered multiple times.
The filibuster, aka Senate Rule 22, has been a mainstay in the Senate since 1806 when the Senate agreed with a proposal made by Aaron Burr in 1789 that the motion to “move the previous question” was redundant and struck the motion. It wasn’t until 31 years later, 1837, that the filibuster was used for the first time. It took another 80 years, 1917 for the Senate to create the rule of cloture, a two-thirds vote to end debate. (changed in 1975 to three-fifths).
The use of the filibuster as a tool of obstruction has skyrocketed in recent years. The 110th Congress (2007-2008) experienced a record 139 motions to invoke cloture. This trend continued in the 111th Congress, with the filing of 137 motions to invoke cloture. In comparison, only 20 cloture motions were filed between 1950 and 1969.
From 1917 – 1970 there were a total of 59 cloture motions filed, just over one per year. Cloture was invoked on eight. From 1971 – 2012 there have been 1,319 cloture motions filed or 32 per year. Cloture has been invoked on 426 of those motions. Approximately 40% of these cloture votes have been on motions to proceed. If we look at the 118 cloture motions filled during the 112th Congress, 31 or 26% have been on motions to proceed, Cloture was invoked on 15.
Imagine filibusters to be like massive military weapons — we don’t want people using them because of the damage they cause. The damage, in the Senate’s case, is unrelenting congressional gridlock, and an unproductive Congress.
For a complete run-down of what the heck a filibuster even is, see pundit Mark Kogan's analysis here.