In the aftermath of a mass shooting at a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, two senators introduced a modest measure to require background checks on all gun sales. Out of 100 senators, 54 voted to move ahead with it. In almost every legislative body, such a majority would be enough to ensure passage. In the Senate it meant defeat. That is because any member can stop a vote in its tracks by invoking the filibuster rule. If the other side cannot muster 60 votes to end the filibuster, the bill dies.
The men who framed America’s constitution intended the Senate as a bulwark against the tyranny of the majority. Yet the Framers never developed fixed procedures for shutting down debate. That absence has allowed minorities in the Senate to use various maneuvers, most famously the filibuster, to block legislation a majority wishes to pass. The filibuster was used rarely in the past, predominantly by Southern democrats seeking to halt civil rights legislation. Now the filibuster has become routine, cost-free, and all but ubiquitous. This has turned the Senate into the only legislative body in the world which requires a supermajority for ordinary business (The Economist March 13, 2021).