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How the Filibuster Both Ruined the Senate and Made It Great How the Filibuster Both Ruined the Senate and Made It Great

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How the Filibuster Both Ruined the Senate and Made It Great

The Political Landscape is a weekly conversation with Atlantic Media writers, editors, and outside experts on the news of the day.


Americans like to think of the Senate as the greatest deliberative body in the world.

Thomas Jefferson supposedly once asked George Washington, "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" To which Washington responded, "To cool it." Then Washington went further. "We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."

Senators have been "cooling" legislation for more than 200 years with a variety of measures we call "filibusters." And for nearly all of those years, people have argued that filibusters are, in fact, freezing legislation.

But it's not hard to find people — politicians, academics, historians — to vociferously defend the filibuster.

On this week's podcast, how the filibuster both ruined the Senate and made it the greatest deliberative body in the world. Next week, the Senate will vote on a variety of filibuster reforms. Will we finally see a change in the rules? 


We stopped by the office of current Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. He's written multiple books on Senate history, edited the transcripts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's closed hearings during the Red Scare, and done extensive oral histories of the senate. And he seemed genuinely excited to sit down and talk filibuster with me for 35 minutes. He knows more about Senate rules than anyone.

Except maybe Robert Dove, who spent 35 years in the Senate Parliamentarian's office, twice serving as Senate parliamentarian. As parliamentarian, senators went to Dove for all Senate rules clarifications. He loves Senate rules. Dove has lived by the same motto since 1966: "The rules of the Senate are perfect, and if they changed them all tomorrow, they would still be perfect." He shared some stories from his decades on the Senate floor, including the blow-by-blow of the time Senate Republicans, unhappy with his interpretation of the rules, fired him from his position in 2001.

We also talked to Sarah Binder, a George Washington University political-science professor, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and author of a history of the filibuster, Politics or Principle: Filibustering in the United States.

Finally, we talked to David Graham, an associate editor at The Atlantic. Graham has written about current filibuster reform efforts and will explain what's on the table right now.

So stick with us through the podcast to learn how an overlooked 1807 rule change allowed for what we now think of as filibustering, the real-life story behind Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, how one reporter's vigil played a significant role in ending the ceaseless filibustering of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s, and why all the current talk about filibuster reform will likely be just that — talk.

Check out our last episode on the top foreign policy stories to look for in 2013. 

Check out all past episodes of The Political Landscape.

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