Hi Reddit, Molly Reynolds here, and I’m here today to talk about the Senate filibuster. I’ve researched and written about congressional rules and procedure. You can read some of my work here and check out my book on ways the Senate gets around the filibuster here.

Comments: 1182 • Responses: 14  • Date: 

AMillionMonkeys427 karma

Back in the day, someone had to stand on the Senate floor for twelve hours and read Dr. Seuss or whatever to filibuster. I heard that now they just have to threaten it and it works - they don't even have to be in DC.
If the filibuster were kept, is there any proposed way to legally require an endurance event? It's one of those things that would be tricky to define technically I think.

mollyereynolds352 karma

There are probably some things the Senate could do to try to force senators to actually stay on the floor and actively speak on a matter rather than allowing so-called "silent" filibusters. One challenge here is that, for the majority, who has lots of things it wants to get done, there are potentially big opportunity costs to letting the minority hold up the floor. Here's a good explanation of why the talking filibuster might be not be the solution to all of the Senate's problems: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/03/17/biden-says-bring-back-talking-filibuster-would-that-really-let-senate-democrats-pass-bills/, and another piece (from 2012) about why exactly how a talking filibuster reform would work matters a lot: https://themonkeycage.org/2012/11/will-merkley-warrens-talking-filibuster-proposal-work/

pelotron222 karma

I read a really interesting suggestion for filibuster reform and wonder what your thoughts are?

The idea is to reverse the polarity of the cloture vote - instead of requiring 60 votes to end debate, we require 40 votes to continue debate. That would still allow the minority party to filibuster when they think it is absolutely necessary, but it also requires all their members to be present in the chamber in order to cast a vote if it is called. No more of this shift-work where they send in one guy at a time.

mollyereynolds206 karma

This is an idea advocated for by my longtime friend, Norm Ornstein of AEI: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/03/02/manchin-filibuster-never-sinema. I agree that is has the potential to make the minority bear more of the cost of filibustering, but it's not clear how much of a difference it would really make. After all when we look at cloture votes over the past decade, those opposing cloture managed to get at least 40 votes almost every time: https://twitter.com/bindersab/status/1370079714015084545?s=20

alansmithy123X216 karma

Hi I am in the UK. Can u give us non US ppl a brief overview of what a filibuster is and why there is so much ‘noise’ about it recently? Thanks

mollyereynolds337 karma

Sure! To filibuster something in the Senate means to use any one of a number of tactics to prevent something from coming to a vote. Senators can do this because there's generally nothing in the Senate's rules that restricts how long something can be debated for, or any way for a simple majority of senators to cut off debate. Instead, for most legislation, the tactic available for bringing debate to a close--known as cloture--requires 60 votes, or a supermajority. We're hearing so much about it now because Democrats have the narrowest of majorities in the Senate and have a number of high profile proposals they expect Republicans to obstruct.

For more on this, I'd recommend this explainer I wrote (it's short, I promise!): https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/what-is-the-senate-filibuster-and-what-would-it-take-to-eliminate-it/

LurkerMagoo162 karma

Do you have a brief history of changes made to the filibuster prior to this congress? How many times has it changed and what were those effective changes?

Also, thanks for doing this. It's such an interesting topic and I, for one, really appreciate someone who's actually educated in this field to answer a few questions. Sincere thanks!

mollyereynolds236 karma

I wouldn't call it short, but this document, written by the Senate Rules Committee, has an incredibly thorough chronology that starts on p. 11: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CPRT-112SPRT66046/pdf/CPRT-112SPRT66046.pdf. My colleague Sarah Binder has a great overview of the high points of the history here: https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/the-history-of-the-filibuster/.

Spazzrico90 karma

Can you say whether or not that if the Democrats move to go back to the talking filibuster will the GOP or does the GOP plan to go scorched Earth as a reaction? It wouldn't be ending the filibuster, but restoring what it was originally.

I've been a proponent of going back to the talking filibuster for years, because the current way in which it is organized is just silly.....an e-mail from a staffer about the intention to filibuster is enough?? No thank you. How does any important legislation ever happen again in that scenario.

mollyereynolds149 karma

How Republicans would respond if Democrats returned to the talking filibuster--or otherwise made changes to the way it works--is a hugely important question and one to which we don't really know the answer. Leader McConnell has certainly threatened a "scorched earth" approach and we have seen how, if one or more senators want to, they can really throw sand in the gears of the Senate's daily operations. (See: Ron Johnson insisting that the entire American Rescue Plan be read aloud on the floor.) But McConnell also threatened to retaliate after Democrats changed the procedures in 2013 for nominees, but didn't take the maximalist approach then. Would he now? Maybe. But at the end of the day, even Republican senators have things they want to get done that require having the legislative process work.

JustHereForTheFood4243 karma

I know the arguments for getting rid of the filibuster, but what are the arguments for keeping the filibuster that benefit all parties, not just one?

mollyereynolds94 karma

One argument you often hear for keeping the filibuster is that today's Senate majority party won't be in the majority forever, and anything they do today would be more easily undone in the future by the other party when they take control of the chamber--and that this pendulum swing of policy would be bad for the country. And even in the short term, the retaliation that the minority party might execute against the majority party would make it hard to get even the most basic things done.

For more from a smart, long-time Senate staffer on keeping the filibuster, I'd recommend anything by Rich Arenberg, including this discussion I hosted at Brookings earlier this year: https://www.brookings.edu/events/debating-the-future-of-the-filibuster/

hum28 karma

Why are some things not subject to the filibuster (like judicial nominations)?

mollyereynolds31 karma

Judicial nominations--and nominations to executive branch positions--aren't subject to the filibuster because previous Senate majorities (Democrats in 2013 for nominees except to the Supreme Court and Republicans in 2017 for SCOTUS) made targeted changes to the way the Senate's rules for ending debate on those matters, moving from needing 60 votes to cut off debate to 51.

mollyereynolds7 karma

Thanks for all the great questions! That's all the time I have for today, but you can follow me on Twitter at @mollyereynolds, and if you want to learn more, join us for a webinar next week on this topic: https://www.brookings.edu/events/filibuster-101-an-explainer-of-the-senate-rule-and-reform/

Cardchucker3 karma

Are there any proposals to modify the existing system so someone can delay a vote but not block it completely? Bill gets shelved for 3 days so they have time to fully read a bill and do some research. Can only be triggered once per bill. 60 votes allows immediate vote.

Making someone talk endlessly just seems silly and prevents them from actually debating.

mollyereynolds6 karma

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon has been a long time proponent of a reform like this. This is an old-ish summary of it: https://www.merkley.senate.gov/news/in-the-news/jeff-merkley-circulates-talking-filibuster-reform-proposal, and here's a good discussion of whether it would work: https://themonkeycage.org/2012/11/will-merkley-warrens-talking-filibuster-proposal-work/

sigh28283 karma

Should the Senate officially move forward with reforming or even removing the filibuster,

What's a realistic timeline of events and how long would it take for said reforms to go into affect?

mollyereynolds17 karma

When we look back at previous reforms to the filibuster, they've generally come after a period of sustained obstruction by the Senate's minority party of something relatively specific that the Senate's majority party really wants to get done. In other words, two of the necessary ingredients for filibuster reform are committed obstruction by the minority AND strong commitment by the majority to whatever the minority is stopping. This is the story, for example, of the 2013 change made to the procedures for ending debate on nominations to the lower federal courts and to the executive branch. (For more that, my Brookings colleague Sarah Binder has a good discussion here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2013/11/24/fate-of-the-filibuster-in-a-post-nuclear-senate/)

In terms of when a change would take effect, it depends on exactly what the change is; some reformers have proposed adopting changes that would only take effect in future Congresses as a way to try and get more senators to support them. But the most likely change--something similar to the 2013 and 2017 changes for nominees--would take effect immediately.

ArchieBunkersGhost2 karma

What's your favorite type of taco?

mollyereynolds2 karma


Aubrion1 karma

Even if the filibuster is nuked, how do you see the Senate operating differently than the House. Are there aspects of the Senate that make its identity unique without relying on the filibuster?

mollyereynolds2 karma

Even if the Senate filibuster is eliminated, I don't think the chamber automatically turns into the House. Its membership is smaller (by a lot!), many of its members have bigger constituencies than their House counterparts, and--maybe most importantly--senators don't have to run for re-election every two years. Those features I think ensure the two chambers will always be somewhat different.

AlrightThatsIt-7 karma

is it true that Democrats should kill the filibuster while they can benefit from it, because Republicans will inevitably kill it when they can benefit from it instead?

has the noise around the issue basically thrown a gun into the middle of the room and created a race to be the first one to pick it up?

are there moderates/independents who will genuinely dislike killing the filibuster and cost the Democrats votes, and how is it possible for people like this to exist and not have turned against Republicans for their infinitely greater malfeasance?

mollyereynolds2 karma

The debate over whether and how to curb Senate obstruction is not new by any stretch--the challenges of unlimited debate have plagued the Senate throughout its history (my colleague Sarah Binder has a great brief explainer on this here: https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/the-history-of-the-filibuster/).