How a Filibuster Works

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.