Filibuster

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Since 1917 there have been more than one hundred attempts to force cloture—seventy-three of them since 1965, fifty-six since 1970. Only twenty-five have been successful, sixteen of those in the last decade.

In recent years there have been two other changes in the filibuster, in addition to cloture. The first was the passage in 1933 of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution. This eliminated the so-called lame-duck session of Congress and the mandatory March 4th adjournment of the legislature. Under the old constitutional provision, newly elected members of Congress had to wait eighteen months after their election to take their seats—a sensible arrangement perhaps in the eighteenth century, when both communications and transportation facilities made it difficult for the new representatives to get to the capital in time for the January session following an election. But it made no sense at all in the twentieth century. Moreover, the bulk of filibusters were timed to take advantage of the date of adjournment, and supporters of Senate reform were convinced that eliminating that deadline might have a beneficial effect.

That hope was misplaced. Whatever benefits accrued from the amendment, modification of the filibuster was not one of them, and the practice has continued unabated to the present time.

Since 1970 another feature has been added to obstructionism in the Senate, for the last forty years filibusters have occasionally been the work of midwestern Republicans on economic and agricultural matters and, more commonly, of southern Democrats on civil rights. But in the last five years eight or more major filibusters have been conducted by a loose bipartisan coalition of moderates and liberals, the traditional enemies of the practice.

Beginning with an attack on the continued development of the supersonic transport ( SST ) favored by the Nixon administration, the liberal wing has systematically filibustered an extension of the military draft, further funding of the Vietnam war, the nomination of William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court, a loan to the Lockheed corporation, and a 1972 anti-busing bill.

Although not the first time liberals have filibustered—a similar coalition attempted to block the Taft-Hartley Act in 1948, and another delayed passage of a 1964 bill in opposition to a Supreme Court order reapportioning the state legislatures—the recent obstructionism represents, in its frequency alone, a significant departure from past liberal practices, and it raises some questions about the future of filibuster reform.

If, for example, the liberals find themselves increasingly in a minority position, they may wish to keep the weapon minorities have traditionally employed unencumbered. It is, of course, too soon to tell whether their reliance on this legislative tool is a temporary expedient or now a matter of policy.

In any case, experts are generally agreed that the recent change in Rule 22 to a three-fifths majority of the whole Senate has done little to impede the filibuster, and the tactics of delay are still available, as they always have been, to whatever minority chooses to use them to thwart the majority will.