Fix the Senate Now

Using Senate Rules to Block Debate and Votes

Check out this list to see just how the Senate rules block a majority of senators from taking up important measures and getting the people’s business done.

Unanimous consent. All 100 senators must agree that the business of the Senate will go forward. One senator can stop bills, nominations, appointments, even ordinary actions like naming a post office.

Preventing discussion of a bill. There are four ways a single senator can hold up discussion of a bill.

  1. On the motion to consider.
  2. On the actual motion or issue.
  3. On the nomination of a conference committee
  4. On the House-Senate conference report which must be approved by the full Senate.

To make matters worse, when a single senator sets out to hold up business, he or she can insist that the Senate conduct no other business for 30 hours, until another vote to move forward is held.

Requiring a supermajority on nearly everything. A supermajority of all senators, or 60 votes, is needed just to allow discussion or a vote on a bill. In a democracy, a majority is the standard for elections and referenda, not a supermajority.

Committee delays. All 100 senators must consent to holding a committee meeting on any day after the Senate has been in session for two hours, or after 2:00 p.m. when the Senate is in session. This enables just one senator to stop important committee business from happening, forcing work to a grinding halt.

How does anything ever get done? Lately, it doesn’t.

Senate Rules and Filibuster Aren't in the Constitution

Senate rules, and especially the rules about filibuster and debate, have changed a lot over our nation’s history.

1789 The original rules of the Senate included a provision that would allow debate to be cut off by a simple majority vote. And from 1789-1806, this provision was only used four times in the U.S. Senate.

1917 A procedure to cut off debate, known as “cloture,” was adopted. This rule required two-thirds (up to 67 votes) of the senators present and voting to agree.

1949 This rule was changed to require that two-thirds (a full 67 votes) of the full Senate had to vote to cut off debate. This was the start of record-setting filibusters, including Strom Thurmond’s marathon filibuster of the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

1959 The filibuster rule was changed back to require that two-thirds (up to 67 votes) of those senators voting and present was necessary to cut off debate.

1975 to present In 1975, the number of votes needed to cut off debate was changed to three-fifths of all senators, or 60 votes. This is the standard in place today.