Basically, a long time ago somebody noticed that down in the fine print of the Senate's rules it said that, sure, you only need 51 of the 100 votes to get something passed, but you need 60 votes in order to hold the vote at all -- the separate vote to say, "OK, we're done debating this, let's hold the vote." So if your party only holds 41 seats -- like if, say, most of the country supports the other party -- all you need is one member to say, "Hey, I'm not done debating this, and to prove it, I'll just stand up here and talk until we all keel over from starvation."
So in the old days they would literally stand up there and keep talking, forever, whether they achieved this by singing or reciting oyster recipes. It's no mean feat of endurance, and it came to be recognized as the absolute last-ditch effort to stop legislation that the majority of the elected senators approve of.
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Well, they could also shut the whole government down. But that chance only comes every so often.
Today there is a thing called silent filibuster, a handy way to prevent more work in less time. It's essentially just a threat of a filibuster -- one that can conveniently be sent in via email if the senator in question is feeling particularly lazy. No days-long speaking marathons, no impassioned speeches by defiant senators on the verge of collapse from exhaustion. What used to be a rare, eleventh-hour effort by the minority party has become routine, to the point that now almost all legislation is held up by it at one point or another.
So once again -- the people go to the polls and elect representatives. The majority supports X, so those representatives create legislation to pass X. But because of this loophole, the minority can stop it cold. They don't even have to argue their views, as with a normal filibuster; they can just type a sternly worded letter, click "send," and watch the bill die. It's like a cheat code, only instead of letting you win, it crashes the game.
Here's a handy graph to show how often this is suddenly being used:
The Century Foundation
So if the bar representing uses of this blocking tactic is getting longer, what would it look like if we had bars showing the number of bills actually getting passed? Well, the Pew Research Center has made one:
Pew Research Center
Whether this is bad for democracy depends on whether you think the government should actually, you know, do things.
While the party getting their legislation blocked screams about how unfair it is, their screaming stops the very moment they are in the minority and want to use the tactic themselves. This is why you can't get dirty tricks written out of the rules -- ultimately, both sides want to reserve the right to pull the same tricks themselves down the road. Which, we suppose, kind of sums up the problem with everything.
Nathan Blumenthal tweets and blogs. Xavier Jackson wants to thank his high school teacher Mr. Cranston for opening his eyes to how screwed up the system is.
Related Reading: Democracy is broken. If you need more proof, check out these petitions. And while we're near the subject, let's talk election myths. Did you know angry partisan rhetoric ISN'T at an all-time high? The holidays are coming up. So before you start any relationship-ruining arguments with your family, read this.