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Former Senate Chief-of-Staff Mike Zamore ’93 talks new book, filibuster, 2024 elections at event

Zamore discussed filibuster as cause of political disaffection

Zamore serves as the national director of policy and government affairs at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Zamore serves as the national director of policy and government affairs at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mike Zamore ’93 — the former chief of staff for U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) — returned to Brown Feb. 12 to discuss the book he co-authored with Merkley, “Filibustered! How to Fix the Broken Senate and Save America,” at an event hosted by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and the Brown College Democrats. Sam Chachkes ’25, the speakers and events director at Brown College Democrats, moderated the event.

Zamore currently serves as the national director of policy and government affairs at the American Civil Liberties Union — a position he began in December following more than a decade on Capitol Hill with Merkley. 

At the discussion, Zamore outlined the main argument of his book — that the current state of the filibuster is undermining the Senate’s power and democratic foundations — and provided his thoughts on campaign finance reform, Democratic messaging, political polarization and disaffected young voters. 

Zamore also offered advice to students looking to become involved in politics. “Do the thing that’s interesting and exciting to you right now and don’t get caught up on the plan because what you do might change the plan,” he said, adding that the people one works with are “more important than the job title or the institution, or sometimes even the issue.”


“People who are creative, are driven, have a ton of initiative and are doers — and are kind and thoughtful — those are the people you want to be around,” he said.  

Attendees found the event informative and expressed interest in Zamore’s book. 

“It was very insightful,” Axel Martinez ’26 said after the talk. “He explained the filibuster in a way that was very comprehensive.”

McConnell Bristol ’26 found the event “fascinating,” saying that he “really enjoyed (Zamore’s) perspective on everything that’s going on.”

“Honestly, I was on the fence about the filibuster before this, and he convinced me that this is the way to go,” Bristol said, adding that the discussion made him want to read Zamore’s book. 

The filibuster 

Zamore began the event by providing a brief history of the filibuster, a practice that allows senators to continue their debate around a bill in order to delay or avoid voting on it. 

When “the filibuster was first employed in earnest in 1841,” it “was an exception — a rare occasion that punctured the basic norms of the Senate,” Zamore said. “It was obstruction for obstruction’s sake.”

But, according to Zamore, this norm has changed significantly in the last 20 years. While cloture rules can force an end to debate and a subsequent vote, the Senate requires a three-fifths majority — or 60 votes — to invoke cloture. Since the 1990s, senators have taken advantage of the high bar for cloture to stop bills from being voted on, even when the bills have over 50 percent of the Senate’s support — which is the technical requirement for a bill to pass.

“We call it a filibuster, but it looks nothing like the filibuster that you imagine from the movies,” Zamore said in an interview with The Herald. “Usually (it’s) just an email from some senator’s staff member to the cloakroom on their side saying ‘not okay with a vote.’ If you do that, if the minority sticks together, they can block any legislation and any amendments.” 


“When you start to think about it, it’s bananas that you require 60 votes in a 100-senator body to get to the final passage of a piece of legislation,” he said at the event. “The minority now effectively has a veto in the Senate.” 

“The mutually assured gridlock that (veto) produces is amazingly corrosive to democracy,” he added, because “the things that people want to see delivered by their government are not done.”

“If you look at where we are as a country right now and the threats to democracy, I think there’s a very straight line to be drawn back to the rampant abuse of the filibuster,” Zamore told The Herald. He said that he and Merkley wrote the book to “shine a light” on the “threat to democracy” that has been posed by the filibuster for the last 20 years.

But Zamore said that he does see a path to end the filibuster.

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“If Democrats were to hold the Senate, win the house and keep the presidency in these next upcoming elections, I think there’s a good possibility that we could reform the filibuster” to ensure it doesn’t prevent voting on bills, he told The Herald. “I’m certainly working to try to make that a reality.”

Zamore added that, even if Democrats win the presidency and a majority in Congress in the 2024 election, reform would still require advocacy groups — from gun violence prevention to abortion rights — to show senators that they can’t use the filibuster as an excuse for inaction.

“We know now what’s going on, and we’re not going to let (senators) pretend that this is out of your hands,” he said.

The 2024 elections

Zamore lamented what he sees as a tendency among Democrats to be defensive when it comes to controversial topics.

When faced with “any issue that seems controversial, or that Republicans might attack (them) for,” Democrats put their “heads down” and refuse to talk about it, he said. Zamore cited trans rights as an issue Democrats often avoid due to its complications, while Republicans discuss the matter more openly.

“If you’re playing defense, the best you can hope for is the status quo — and there is no area of policy in our country right now where I think the status quo is good,” he said. “You have to be on offense … change the conversation, set the terms of debate, expand the window of what’s possible.”

To do this, Zamore suggested President Joe Biden take a more inspirational position going into the 2024 presidential elections.

“All voters want to be inspired. People want hope and a vision they can get behind,” he said. “One of the problems of our political moment right now is that the politics are relentlessly negative.”

According to Zamore, in 2020 and 2024, Biden ran and is running on a platform of “Not That Guy,” referencing Donald Trump. “‘Not That Guy’ is a really, really important outcome … but as a whole, not an inspiring message,” he said.

President Biden needs “to present a vision that says, ‘Look, I believe in a country, in an America, where people have the right to pursue their own vision of what their life should be,’” Zamore added, pointing to abortion rights, banned books and wealth inequality as issues around which Biden can rally his base.

Talia LeVine

Talia LeVine is a photographer for The Herald and a University News Senior Staff Writer focusing on Admissions & Financial aid. She is a first-year from Seattle, WA studying Political Science with an emphasis on human rights.

Katie Jain

Katie Jain is a University News editor from New Jersey overseeing the graduate student life beat. She is a junior concentrating in International and Public Affairs and History.

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