This past weekend, John Oliver and the Last Week Tonight team set their sights on a flawed political relic with no place in our modern-day system … and we’re not talking about Joe Biden, heyo! It’s the filibuster Oliver is concerned with, a legislation-blocking maneuver (defined by Oliver as “any tactic aimed at blocking a measure by preventing it from coming to a vote”) that has turned the U.S. Senate from a place of progress to the place progress goes to die—often at the hands of self-described Grim Reaper Mitch McConnell.
It’s the obstructionist tactics of McConnell and his ilk that threaten any big-idea proposals Democratic 2020 hopefuls are currently campaigning on—Bernie Sanders’ signature Medicare for All, for instance, would inevitably collide with the “giant non-functioning roadblock” that is the Senate. Having established the current form of this conflict, Oliver then traces the filibuster back to its historical source, (fili)busting the many myths that have come to surround it since the first filibuster took place in 1837. Today’s filibuster isn’t a heroic-seeming feat of standing up for what’s right, a la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—it’s little more than “an overused tool of obstruction” that enables the Senate to shoot down any bill that falls short of a 60-vote majority, whether they care to make a theatrical speech while doing so or not. As Oliver explains, all a would-be obstructionist needs to do nowadays is “signal [their] intent to filibuster” and have the votes on their side, and it’s a wrap.
Oliver connects the modern-day dominance of the filibuster to the Senate’s overall decline, examining how both have long been romanticized to the point of completing losing the plot. Both are depicted as crucial paragons of debate, but the reality is such debate mostly just amounts to stalling, suffocating legislation in its crib—Strom Thurmond once spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes, still a record, while filibustering the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and you can bet it wasn’t because he relished the chance to open his mind and hear the act’s merits espoused. Even today, when filibustering is easier than ever, some senators still harbor a penchant for theatrics, as Oliver shows us: Rand Paul’s candy-eating incompetence and Ted Cruz’s Dr. Seuss recital aren’t exactly shining examples of the filibuster as “a vital means of facilitating a full and robust debate.”
The more hyper-partisan the Senate becomes, the more its two warring parties lean on the filibuster as a means of stymying each other’s competing agendas. And even important bipartisan legislation is falling victim to this same brick wall. “We’ve reached the point where senators don’t so much brag about what they’ve passed so much as brag about what they are going to obstruct,” Oliver laments.
Get rid of it, right? Oliver agrees, as do Pete Buttigieg, Steve Bullock, Elizabeth Warren and … Donald Trump?! “There is just nothing that can make you question one of your beliefs quite like Donald Trump unexpectedly sharing it,” Oliver observes, establishing the big risk attached to ending this political practice: “The side you agree with won’t always be in power—abolishing the filibuster would make it easier for everyone to do things, including people you might not agree with.”
Oliver concludes by making his case for abolishing the filibuster anyway, arguing for it as “a risk worth taking” by using “the exact kind of big, stupid speech that I hate.” The host’s ensuing “15-hour” filibuster ties the whole segment’s silliness together, while also sneaking in the final word on the problem: “The more you learn about the filibuster, the more it appears to be a historical mistake that’s not serving us well today.”
Watch Oliver filibuster the filibuster below.