Wikipedia has a long etymology of the word that seems to have its origins in a phrase for “pirate,” but now means the act of blocking a bill in the Senate by a single senator. That used to necessitate the senator’s talking the bill to death like Jimmy Stewart did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but now a wave of a single senator’s hand can block a bill and only a cloture vote of 60 senators can unblock the bill. The idea is to build consensus between the parties thus resulting in the best legislation. The logic is that any bill that can attract 60 senators must be a good one. Obamacare was an example of such a bill, but you can decide for yourself whether that was a good or bad bill.
What the filibuster has meant in fact is that the minority party can delay, defer, or spike legislation proposed by the majority with a vote from a single senator. The so-called “nuclear option” can be used to end the filibuster process forever as it was used to end the filibuster’s use in the approval of judges. Thus, none of Trump’s three nominees to the Supreme Court needed or got 60 confirmation votes. This is awful, but reality in 2021. Where should we go from here given that the filibuster and cloture votes are not in the Constitution, but derive from Senate rules.
There was a block in even setting up the Senate this year because minority leader McConnell wanted the functional (50 Senators plus one vice president) Democratic majority to pledge not to eliminate the filibuster. But when two Democratic senators (Manchin of WV and Sinema of AZ) agreed not to vote for the filibuster’s elimination, Mitch relented, and the Senate is now being organized with new Democratic chairs of all committees.
George Washington was supposed to have told Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was to cool legislation from the House like a saucer is used to cool hot tea. That was then. Now the Senate has become the place that legislation of any kind goes to die.
This is why presidents are using executive orders more than ever. It is simply too hard to get anything through the Senate. Hundreds of bills are passed by the House and then sat upon by the leadership of the Senate. This may change now that the conduit to a Senate Committee and a full vote may be through Chuck Schumer not Mitch McConnell, but that will not stop the filibuster.
If the filibuster were voted out of existence (and that may take only 50 votes), the Senate minority would wield less power and the majority leader should be able to pass just about anything if he can keep his caucus together, no small feat.
In principle, I like the idea of there being a 60-vote consensus for new legislation to pass the Senate. However, when he was Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell used the filibuster like a cudgel to kill many good ideas that came from the House.
I think the right thing to do now is for the Senate leadership to work harder to bring forward bills that a supermajority can support. If the outliers on both sides (Cruz or Sanders) cannot come to agreement, that’s OK if most senators can. If however, the entire federal government gets tied up in knots again, as it has been for the past ten years, then it may be time to end the filibuster. This is really in the hands of Schumer and McConnell. I am not hopeful.