How a Filibuster Works

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If you've ever seen the classic movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," you'll remember that James Stewart plays a senator conducting a filibuster to stop a corrupt public works bill. Talking until he is exhausted, Smith uses the tactic to uphold his principles [source: Dirks]. In real life, Senate filibusters occur for a variety of reasons, not all of them so high-minded.

In essence, a filibuster is any use of procedural rules to block or delay legislative action. The term usually refers to extended debate of a bill carried on by one or more senators. The continual talking prevents the matter from being voted on, and the bill may simply be "talked to death." Other delaying tactics can be used for the same purpose.

Filibustering has a history that goes all the way back to the Senate of ancient Rome. Legislatures in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and France have experienced filibusters [sources: Connelly, Oloffson]. But the U.S. Senate has endured many more filibusters than other bodies. In part, this is because today, a senator doesn't have to speak endlessly in order to filibuster. If he has more than 40 senators on his side, the mere threat of a filibuster effectively blocks the legislation. No endless debate is needed.

Some regard the filibuster as a good thing, a tactic that preserves the rights of the minority and assures careful consideration of issues. Certainly it can foster accommodation. The majority party might seek to shape a bill so that a substantial minority of Senators will not block it with a filibuster.

But others criticize the filibuster as intrinsically undemocratic. They feel it allows the minority to dictate to the majority. An actual extended debate wastes time needed for other matters. And the compromises that senators make to avoid a filibuster may be bad ones aimed at placating a single senator.

Read on to find out more about a tactic that has a long and colorful history.

The History of Filibusters

The filibuster evolved accidentally. It's not mentioned in the Constitution, nor is it part of our system of checks and balances. No Senate rules specifically mention filibusters.

When the House of Representatives and the Senate were established in 1789, each had similar rules for cutting off debate on a bill or any other matter. Only a majority vote was needed to pass a "previous question motion" [source: New York Times]. Once that motion passed, debate on the bill ended, and senators then voted whether to enact the bill into law.

In 1806, senators simplified their rules, eliminating the little-used "previous question motion" rule, which limited debate [source: Connolly]. They didn't realize that they had made it possible for one or more senators to carry on an endless debate that could keep bills the majority wanted to pass from coming to a vote. The House, on the other hand, retained the ability to cut off debate by a simple majority vote. Filibusters are not possible in that body.

During the 19th century, the filibuster was an uncommon tactic in the Senate. The first filibusters were not held until the 1830s [source: Connolly]. Fewer than two dozen filibusters took place before 1900. The reason was that the Senate had a tradition of reasoned debate and most senators frowned on any abuse of rules.

In 1917, a group of senators conducted a filibuster to block a bill that would arm U.S. merchant ships. Frustrated by the 23-day delay as the Great War raged in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson enlisted public opinion against "a little group of willful men" [source: Carlson]. He pushed the Senate to pass what was known as the cloture rule. That meant that two-thirds of senators could vote to cut off debate.

During the 20th century, Southern senators often used filibusters to block civil rights legislation. From 1922 to 1949, they were able to block five separate anti-lynching laws. In 1957, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond spoke in the Senate for 24 hours, 18 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a vote on a civil rights bill. His record for a one-man filibuster has never been surpassed [source: Carlson].

In 1975, senators changed the cloture rule to require only a three-fifths vote, 60 rather than 67 senators, to cut off debate. But new procedures also allowed Senators who could muster at least 41 colleagues to block a particular piece of legislation while the Senate proceeded with other business. They didn't need to conduct an actual filibuster, only threaten one. Intended to make the Senate more efficient, this change actually increased the frequency of filibusters [source: Schlesinger].

In the next section you'll read about how a filibuster is actually conducted.

Techniques of a Filibuster

In a simple filibuster, like the one in "Mr. Smith goes to Washington," a single senator holds the floor, talking for as long as he can. Many such one-man filibusters have been held over relatively minor issues or to score political points. In 1935, Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long staged a filibuster to try to hang onto patronage jobs in his state. He spoke nonstop for 15 hours, filling the time by reading from the Constitution and from the plays of Shakespeare. He even gave recipes for cooking fried oysters [source: New York Times]. No rule said a senator's speech has to be relevant to the matter at hand.

If only a single senator filibusters, his colleagues can hold a successful cloture vote as soon as he yields the floor, ending the filibuster. But if more than 40 senators support a filibuster, cloture is impossible and the matter can be delayed indefinitely. For example, a group of senators talked for 57 days to try to block the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the end, some senators were won over, a cloture vote succeeded and the bill was enacted [source: Carlson].

Extended debate is only one technique for delaying legislative action. Others include:

  • Anonymous holds allow senators to block bills or nominations that require unanimous consent of senators in order to be voted on.
  • The introduction of a large number of amendments can seriously delay final consideration of a bill. To consume time, filibustering senators can also read each amendment in full, rather than waiving the right to do so, as is customary.
  • A senator can call for lengthy roll-call votes on each amendment and on other issues, using up time.
  • Quorum calls, which ascertain the number of senators present, create delays and force senators to return to chamber.
  • After cloture is passed, parliamentary maneuvers can still delay final passage of a bill for up to two weeks [sources: Beth, Schneider].

If you think all these delaying tactics could seriously interfere with the Senate's business, you're right. In recent years, filibusters have themselves generated a good deal of debate.

Read on to learn about efforts to reform the rules governing filibusters.

Filibuster Reform

Until recent decades, filibusters were rare. During the 1950s, the Senate averaged less than one filibuster per session. But in the 21st century, the pace has increased dramatically. In 2007 and 2008 there were 139 filibusters or threatened filibusters affecting 70 percent of major legislation [sources: Harkin, Schlesinger]. Both parties have filibustered when in the minority. Many feel that reform of the rules that allow filibusters is overdue.

But senators have always been reluctant to give up the power that the filibuster affords them. Plus, reformers face a major obstacle: A rule change usually requires a two-thirds vote to pass -- and can itself be filibustered.

Some progress has been made. The cloture rule allows some filibusters to be stopped. The budget reconciliation process is another way of getting around a filibuster. According to Senate rules, bills dealing with budget matters can be protected against a filibuster. Reconciliation was used to pass welfare reform, President Bush's tax cuts and the 2010 health care law [source: Klein].

In late 2010, senators discussed filibuster reform. A number of provisions were put forth. One would have returned to the requirement that senators remain on the floor while filibustering. They could no longer block a bill by just threatening a filibuster. Another would have gradually reduced the threshold for cloture as a debate proceeded until a simple majority could end debate. A third would have banned filibusters on motions to bring a bill to the floor [source: Abrams].

All the proposals failed. Instead, a handshake agreement between party leaders put in place a number of limited reforms. The use of filibustering to prevent bills from being introduced was restricted. Majority Democrats agreed to allow the minority to introduce more amendments to bills. Both sides agreed not to exercise the nuclear option, changing filibuster rules by a simple majority vote [source: Abrams]. This agreement may limit filibustering somewhat, but the tactic is so ingrained in the tradition of the Senate that we're unlikely to see it disappear any time soon.

Read on for more information about filibusters.

Related Articles


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