What the Filibuster Tells Us About the Senate

Eric Schickler 1  and Gregory J. Wawro 2
  • 1 University of California, Berkeley
  • 2 Columbia University

We argue that even as the Senate filibuster poses serious governance challenges in today’s Congress, it persists because most senators prefer to maintain the minority’s right to obstruct. We consider what this rank-and-file support for the filibuster tells us about the nature of individual senators’ preferences and about the Senate as an institution. We believe that continued support for the filibuster underscores the importance of personal power and publicity goals, the ability of rules to provide “political cover” for legislators, and the role of shared understandings about the appropriate use of rules and about the Senate’s place in the political system. Where nineteenth-century senators propagated a set of beliefs that limited the legitimate use of obstruction, today’s senators have developed an alternative set of beliefs that bolsters the institutional role of the filibuster. Under these circumstances, reform will likely require substantial pressure from outside the institution rather than emerging from within the Senate.

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This journal provides a forum for professionally informed commentary on issues affecting contemporary American politics. This includes but is not limited to issues engaging parties, elections, and political participation; the news media, interest groups, Congress, the Presidency, and the Courts; trends in public finance, presidential popularity, congressional productivity; in contemporary, historical, or comparative perspective.