What the U.S. Senate Needs to Learn from Texas About the Filibuster

Former State Senator Wendy Davis speaking at the 2016 Politicon at the Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena, California.
Former State Senator Wendy Davis speaking at the 2016 Politicon at the Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena, California. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
The filibuster is currently one of the most hotly debated topics in national politics. The threat of one is enough to hamstring the United States Senate so that nothing can pass without a 60-vote majority. This includes the recent commission on the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, which the majority of Republicans did not support despite the fact than many of them were being specifically hunted through the halls by an armed mob.

These constant impasses have led to calls from people like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) for the filibuster to be abolished. The move is opposed by moderate Democrats such as Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), meaning that a repeal almost certainly cannot pass.

However, we don't need to scrap the filibuster. We just need to make the people threatening one actually carry it out. In practice, filibusters don't really stop a lot of legislation, as Texas has amply proven in recent history.

Probably the most famous case was when former State Sem. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) launched a filibuster in 2013 to protest an omnibus abortion bill. Wearing her famous pink shoes, Davis spoke for 11 hours in the state Capitol and was watched by nearly 200,000 people on livestream. Davis hoped to run put the clock on the session, much as Texas Democrats did this past weekend on the voter rights restriction bill. Unfortunately, former Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst said Davis had wandered off topic and called for a vote to silence her. In the end, chaos in the chamber killed the bill.

Until former Governor Rick Perry called a special session that summer, where the bill passed handily. The Democrats also tried to filibuster the voting rights restriction bill over the weekend and were still going strong early Sunday morning. They, too, won a minor victory, but Governor Greg Abbott is already planning his own special session where the clock will not be a factor.

This is the history of the filibuster for the perennially out-of-power Democrats in the Lone Star State. They fight like Scotsmen against unfair and clearly unconstitutional laws (the abortion bill was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court in 2016) and win some glorious victories, but the war always ends up going to the Republicans. All they ever have to do is wait out the theatrics and they get their way.

There is no reason that United States Senates Democrats can’t apply this lesson. Indeed, they already have once. Our own Senator Ted Cruz tried the same year as Wendy Davis to defund the Affordable Care Act by filibustering a budget bill, which lead to a government shutdown. Cruz spoke for 21 hours, including reading Green Eggs and Ham on the floor. The move earned him a lot of applause from the conservative media, but in the end the government reopened, and the ACA was not defunded. Cruz accomplished nothing beyond raising his own profile, something that proved utterly meaningless when he was easily beaten by Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries.

I have no doubt that Republicans in the U.S. Senate are perfectly capable of pulling mindless oppositional stunts for hours at a time. You could argue that this is all they’ve done since 2008. However, the constant threat of a filibuster cannot be the final word on the subject. Texas has repeatedly proven that no matter how flashy and inspiring (or embarrassing in Cruz’s case) the attempts are, they are at best minor roadblocks in the path of eventual legislation.

The filibuster has been nothing but a paper tiger in Texas, and it's hard to see how it would be more effective in the U.S. Senate if Republicans were called on their bluff. Instead of capitulating to the threat automatically, let Republicans try to hold up bills by actually speaking for hours at a time. It may slow things down, but giving in immediately stops the process entirely. In Texas, filibusters have done little to halt the Republican agenda, which is probably why they don't fight too hard when Democrats give it a shot. Democrats in the U.S. Senate should follow suit.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner