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51 is Fair: End the Filibuster


51 is Fair: We Need a Simple Majority Vote

Gun violence in America is a national emergency. But the filibuster prevents Congress from passing laws that will save lives.

You might not know it, but the game is rigged.

If the Senate were to take up legislation to prevent gun violence tomorrow, even legislation that more than 90% of Americans support, its fate could be sealed before a single vote is cast. Why? Because even though 51 Senators make up a majority, the current rules require that 60 Senators agree to even vote on a bill. This arcane rule is known as the “procedural filibuster” and it has been used to block critical progress throughout American history, from civil rights to life-saving gun violence prevention policies.

Let’s be clear, the price of inaction is unacceptable: tens of thousands of Americans die every single year because of Congress’ inability to pass meaningful laws to prevent gun violence. It is past time for the Senate to reform and end the procedural filibuster.

What we are calling for is straightforward — a fair, simple majority vote to advance the will of the people. Every day, over 100 people are shot and killed in America, and hundreds more are injured. Families are ripped apart and lives are forever changed. Gun violence is the second leading cause of death for young people in America, and the leading cause of injury-related death for Black children and teens. There’s no excuse for senseless gun violence — especially when legislative solutions are sitting before the Senate at this very moment.

"As long as we have a filibuster in the United States Senate, that means it’s going to be a 60-vote threshold for anything we want to get done, and that effectively means that the gun industry has a veto.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

What is the Procedural Filibuster?

When most people think of the filibuster, they envision the marathon speech glamorized in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” A lone lawmaker holding the floor of the Senate, forcing attention to an issue. While such speeches, known as “attrition-based filibusters,” take place on occasion, they rarely determine whether legislation will move forward and only last as long as a Senator can physically hold the floor (no sitting, eating, or bathroom breaks allowed).

Less likely to grab headlines than a 15-hour long speech, but often responsible for grinding the legislative process to a halt, is the procedural filibuster. This is a requirement that three-fifths of Senators, a total of 60, must agree to end debate on legislation to move forward with a vote, a process formally known as cloture.

The origins of the procedural filibuster has long been a source of debate, but its consequences are clear. Whether it was created by mistake, oversight, or on purpose, the filibuster has become an instrument of partisan gridlock, allowing the Senate to be held hostage to a minority voice with the goal of inaction.

Perhaps most frustrating is that no action is required to filibuster, and even the threat of one often prevents the Senate from so much as even taking up a bill, meaning that there is no clear way to quantify how many there have been or to hold Senators accountable. The only historical markers we have are motions for cloture — the motion to vote on whether or not to vote — and there we can see the real damage of the procedural filibuster historically, and how it has been used significantly more often as a barrier to legislative action in recent years. Between 1917 and 1970 there were less than 60 motions for cloture to break a filibuster; between 2009 and 2015 there were over 500.

The supermajority requirement of the filibuster defies logic. If 51 senators — a simple majority — are in favor of a bill, then it should pass. That’s why we're telling senators: #51IsFair. America deserves a simple majority vote to pass laws and end gun violence in our country.

The Filibuster has Been Used to Block Votes on Gun Violence Prevention Legislation

The filibuster has been used to stifle critical reforms for decades, but few moments have shown the need for reform more than Spring 2013. Just a few months following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Senate took up a series of gun reform bills, the centerpiece of which was a bipartisan bill to expand the background check system to cover the gun show and internet sales, known as Manchin-Toomey. Despite overwhelming public support for expanding background checks — especially in the wake of a national tragedy — and a clear majority of senators supporting, 55 in total, opponents successfully filibustered the legislation.

The Manchin-Toomey bill is not the only gun safety bill to be blocked by the filibuster. Over the years, several life-saving measures have been blocked from a vote. Using the filibuster as a shield for inaction, gun safety opponents have failed the American public from preventing future tragedies:

Universal Background Checks:

Introduced by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), this legislation would have required a background check for all gun transactions with limited exceptions.

Federal Penalties Against Gun Trafficking:

Introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), this bill would have made gun trafficking a federal crime and increased penalties on straw purchasers.

Assault Weapons Ban:

Introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), this bill would have reinstated the original assault weapons ban, which Congress allowed to lapse in 2004 due to pressure from the gun lobby.

High-Capacity Magazines Ban:

Introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), this bill would have banned high-capacity magazines.

The Senate Has Already Reformed the Filibuster

Since at least 1806, the procedural filibuster has been built into the Senate rules, though it wasn’t used in practice for over 30 years. It immediately became such a burden that Senators quickly tried to reform the rules to get around it.

We know that the Senate can abolish the filibuster because the Constitution explicitly allows them to make their own rules, and because the Senate has changed the filibuster rules in the past. In 1917, the Senate established the “cloture” rule to end debate — before that there was no mechanism for ending a filibuster. And in 1975, because the filibuster was so effective in stopping Senate progress on civil rights legislation, they changed the rules again to lower the threshold for ending a filibuster.

Most recently, the Senate changed the rules again to allow a simple majority — 51 Senators — to confirm federal judges, Cabinet Members, and Supreme Court Justices. If 51 votes is enough for a lifetime appointment for a judge to the highest court, it should be enough to pass common-sense gun laws that the overwhelming majority of Americans support. While a supermajority is required to pass almost all legislation in the U.S. Senate today, it only requires 51 votes to change the rules and abolish the procedural filibuster.

Bottom line: EVERY TIME COMMON-SENSE GUN VIOLENCE PREVENTION LEGISLATION FAILS TO OVERCOME THE FILIBUSTER, LIVES ARE NEEDLESSLY LOST.

We must end the filibuster to allow national emergencies like gun violence to be addressed.