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Taking a closer look at the Senate filibuster

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On Wednesday morning, in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, began an almost 15-hour filibuster of the Commerce, Justice, and Science funding bill. The senator’s filibuster, though, was not about the bill, but rather an effort to build support for stalled gun reform legislation in the Senate. We asked Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern, about the filibuster and what, if anything, it might accomplish.

What was the goal of Sen. Murphy’s filibuster?

The official goal of Sen. Murphy’s filibuster was to pressure the Republican majority to hold votes on existing gun-reform legislation, with a particular focus on bills to prevent those on terrorist watch lists from obtaining guns and to tighten background checks. Similar bills were brought to the floor in 2013 following Sandy Hook, but despite the Democratic majority at the time, all failed due in part to Republican filibusters. Late Wednesday evening, the Republican leadership agreed to hold votes on these bills, but that likely would have happened even without the filibuster. And in any case, with a Republican majority in the Senate, both are unlikely to pass, and indeed similar legislation failed earlier this year.

 

The main effect of all this is more persuasive than legislative: to energize listeners and perhaps nudge a couple more centrist senators in the long and slow process of bringing legislative action in line with public opinion on these mild reform issues.

So, if votes were likely to have taken place anyway, what was the point of the filibuster?

The purpose of the talking filibuster in recent years is less to block or pass specific legislation and more to draw media and public attention to a subject. Unlike what we see in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the filibuster today is a matter of routine and no longer requires one to speak non-stop on the floor at all. Murphy chose to do so for the greater attention it gains, much as Rand Paul did last year and Bernie Sanders did in 2010. Unlike those performances, though, this one was much more of a collaborative effort, with many brief handoffs to other pro-reform Democrats. The main effect of all this is more persuasive than legislative: to energize listeners and perhaps nudge a couple more centrist senators in the long and slow process of bringing legislative action in line with public opinion on these mild reform issues.

 

In the short term, bipartisan agreement on at least the terrorism watch list bill might possibly achieve passage, but in the longer term, the filibuster—the routine, silent, undramatic version—ensures that little is likely to pass no matter who holds a simple majority.

You mentioned that the bills are unlikely to pass. Why is that?

To get a sense of the task, even if the Democrats were to win a majority in the Senate in November, and even if they managed to win 60 seats—a mathematical impossibility—they might still have trouble passing these bills out of the Senate. In the even more energized moment after Sandy Hook, four red-state Democrats voted against similar gun reform bills, and while almost all Republicans currently have an A- or higher rating from the NRA, only 32 Democrats have an F.

The filibuster means that a party needs not just a majority but a supermajority to pass bills. But on guns, despite supermajorities of public support for these reforms, Senate Democrats, even with a supermajority, might not be able to pass these bills. In the short term, bipartisan agreement on at least the terrorism watch list bill might possibly achieve passage, but in the longer term, the filibuster—the routine, silent, undramatic version—ensures that little is likely to pass no matter who holds a simple majority.

 

What’s next for gun reform in the Senate?

Thanks to the filibuster and divisions within the Democratic party over the merits of gun control, the modest legislation Murphy advocates is unlikely to pass any time soon, unless a number of senators change their positions. The 15-hour filibuster on Wednesday, however, garnered lots of attention, particularly on social media, and Donald Trump has signaled a willingness to support the terrorist watch list ban. So this small piece of legislation may possibly pass at some point in the future, thanks in part to actions like yesterday’s filibuster. But more substantial gun reform may have to wait until the Senate rules change or more of the public is convinced that significant new legislation is needed.

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