May 17

Past Event

The State of the U.S. Senate: Understanding the Filibuster and the Emergence of the 60-Vote Majority



  • Moving Beyond Partisanship

    Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) argues that the U.S. Senate must address the substantive questions the country faces today, rather than use procedure to score political points.

    Darrell M. West, Sarah A. Binder and Thomas E. Mann

  • The Filibuster Is Essential

    Dove argues that the filibuster is essential to the Senate, noting that the parliamentary procedure is a formal recognition of the enormous power that individual Senators have.

    Darrell M. West, Sarah A. Binder and Thomas E. Mann

  • The Filibuster's Origin

    According to Binder, the filibuster was not part of the Founding Fathers'' original conception of the Senate; moreover, the filibuster originated by accident.

    Sarah A. Binder

  • Polarization is Damaging

    Smith states that highly polarized parties and mandatory agendas have made it easier for party politics to obstruct the lawmaking process in the Senate, thus, damaging the governance process.

    Darrell M. West, Sarah A. Binder and Thomas E. Mann


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Perhaps no feature of legislative procedure has received as much attention in recent years as the Senate filibuster. Majorities are typically unable to pass major or minor measures without currying the votes of an often recalcitrant sixtieth senator. The current Senate has cast record numbers of cloture votes as Democratic majorities have sought to advance the president’s agenda. The supermajority threshold has led some senators to argue that old chamber rules are strangling the power and efficiency of the Senate.

On May 17, the Brookings Institution and the Weidenbaum Center of Washington University in St. Louis hosted a conference to explore the political and institutional dynamics that have given rise to the “60-Vote Senate.” Discussion also focused on prospects for reforming the filibuster in light of mounting criticism of the Senate and calls for reform of the chamber’s rules.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) gave a keynote address on the strengths and weaknesses of the modern Senate. Senator Wyden was followed by two panels of Senate experts. The first panel—composed of former Senate leadership staff—offered insiders’ views on the state of the Senate. A second panel of congressional scholars offered a broad assessment of the Senate and the procedural and organizational challenges confronting the legislative body; discussion also centered on proposals for reform.

After each panel, speakers took audience questions.

Event Agenda

  • Welcome and Introductory Remarks

  • Keynote Address

    • Hon. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

      U.S. Senate

  • Panel 1: Is the Senate Functional?

    • Richard A. Baker

      Historian Emeritus, U.S. Senate

    • Robert Dove

      Parliamentarian Emeritus, U.S. Senate

      Professor of Political Science, George Washington University

    • Martin Paone

      Executive Vice President, Prime Policy Group

  • Panel 2: Scholars’ Assessment of the Senate as an Institution and Reform Proposals


May 17, 2010

8:30 AM - 12:00 PM EDT

The Brookings Institution

Falk Auditorium

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW


For More Information

Brookings Office of Communications

(202) 797-6105