When most people are introduced to the idea of a filibuster, it’s as roughly the concept illustrated in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — the ability of a small group of Senators to indefinitely delay action on legislation as long as they can hold the floor. The present-day version of a de facto supermajority requirement for most legislation is something very different. How did we switch from rare filibusters, defeated through attrition, to near-constant filibustering defeated (or not) by cloture votes? Greg Kroger explains the findings of his research:
So why did the Senate change? The stock answer is that the chamber’s responsibilities grew with the size and scope of the federal government, so it became more costly to sit around watching obstructionists kill time. There is some truth in that explanation. Also, however, senators’ work habits changed. The introduction of railroads, cars, and (especially) air travel made sitting around in the Senate chamber so…boring. Tedious. Totally lame. During the mid-20th century, the Senate increasingly became a Tuesday-Thursday club, and individual senators began insisting that major legislation be kept from the floor to accomodate their travel schedules. A serious attrition effort would mean cancelled speeches in Manhattan and Chicago, no trips to the Delaware coast, and waiting longer to return to the ranch back in Texas.
Abandoning the attrition path in favor of routine cloture votes, in other words, is more convenient for senators of both parties even if it’s bad for the majority’s policy objectives.