A majority of the Senate voted to reform the filibuster on Thursday, ending the need for the president’s judicial and executive nominees to first clear a 60-vote hurdle before getting an up-or-down vote. The 60-vote requirement still exists for legislation and Supreme Court nominees. But Republican senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) suggested that the GOP might end the filibuster on nominees to the nation’s highest court as well, even though no Republican president’s pick for the Court has ever been filibustered.
This chart from the Princeton Election Consortium shows how the filibuster could be used to pervert the legislative process. Only 41 senators representing about 35 million out of roughly 313 million Americans — around 11 percent of the population — could effectively block anything the Senate wanted to do.
This chart — with Republicans represented in red and Democrats in blue — does not reflect the current makeup of the Senate, where Republicans are behind essentially all of the filibusters.
But the recent vote on background checks can give you a sense of how undemocratic this Senate can be.
“Eighty-six percent of Americans backed background check reform,” The Wire‘s Philip Bump wrote. “Senators representing 38 percent of America blocked it.”
The Senate itself was designed to be less democratic than the House of Representatives even before the idea of the filibuster was made possible in 1806 and first used in 1837, 50 years after the ratification of the Constitution.
“Prior to the 1970s, filibusters — which required 67 votes to break for most of the 20th century — were incredibly rare,” The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein noted and illustrated with this chart:
The use of filibusters escalated when Democrats took the Senate majority in 2006 partly because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) often uses a complex tactic called “filling the tree” that Republicans say forces them to block legislation.
That might explain the rise in legislative filibusters, but it certainly doesn’t explain Republicans’ radical opposition to the president’s executive branch nominations:
Should senators representing about 40 percent of the country be able to effectively obstruct the will of the first president to win 51 percent of the popular vote twice since 1956?