The filibuster, a method of delaying or halting the progress of a bill through prolonged speeches, developed in both chambers of the U.S. Congress in the 19th century. The U.S. House of Representatives got rid of the filibuster at the end of that century. But in the Senate, the filibuster became more common after Reconstruction.
The senate filibuster has been used by Senators in a variety of issues, including the gold standard, the New Deal and wartime production, to name a few. It has also been prominently wielded against civil rights and voting rights bills. Here are six major bills that the Senate filibuster has helped kill in U.S. history.
1891: Federal Elections Bill
In 1890, the House of Representatives passed the Federal Elections Bill, which would have provided federal oversight of the state elections that selected members for the House. The aim of this bill was to ensure that Black men in the south were able to vote in these elections. But it died in the Senate in early 1891, when Democratic senators led a week-long filibuster against it.
Northern senators “claimed they didn’t understand the intensity of southerners’ opposition to the bill,” says Gregory Koger, chair of political science at the University of Miami and author of Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate.
“I think they expected them to vote against it, and not like it,” he says. “But they didn’t anticipate the ferocity with which senators would fight that bill.”
1922: Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill
One of the tactics white southerners used to suppress Black votes was lynching, and activists like Ida B. Wells identified this connection in their campaigns to outlaw it. Congress began introducing legislation mentioning lynching as early as 1901, but it wasn’t until 1922 that an anti-lynching bill passed in the House of Representatives.
That bill was the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, first introduced in 1918 by Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican from Missouri. Senate Democrats filibustered the bill in 1922, 1923 and 1924, preventing it from ever coming to a vote in their chamber.
1934: Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill
The anti-lynching crusade continued into the Great Depression with the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. However, her husband did not share her mission. Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that southerners in his party would filibuster New Deal legislation to death if he supported an anti-lynching law.
Recommended for you
Whether this was true or not is debatable, since there were already plenty of filibusters against New Deal bills (often, these filibusters were meant to force an amendment to the bill in question or force action on another bill, rather than kill legislation outright). In any case, Senate Democrats used the filibuster to kill the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill introduced in 1934; and in 1938, they killed the Wagner-Van Nuys Anti-Lynching Bill with a 30-day filibuster.
4. 1942: Anti-Poll Tax Bill
As the civil rights movement gained steam in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, many southern white senators focused filibusters on civil rights bills. One example was a bill first introduced in 1942 that targeted the poll tax. These taxes, which required citizens to pay a tax before they could vote, disproportionately impacted Black registered voters. Southern senators killed the bill by filibuster, and continued to block passage of anti-poll tax bills throughout the rest of the decade.
5. 1946: Fair Employment Practices Bill
In 1946, Senate Democrats also used the filibuster to kill a fair employment practices bill. During World War II, FDR had used an executive order to create a Fair Employment Practices Commission. But because it expired after the war, Congress drafted a new bill to make employment discrimination illegal.
Really, the bill was just making a wartime policy permanent, says William P. Jones, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and one of over 350 scholars who signed an open letter in May 2021 urging the U.S. Senate to reform its filibuster rules.
“It looks like it would pass—there was majority support for this bill,” Jones says. But the minority of senators who opposed it successfully stopped it with a filibuster. Supporting senators reintroduced a fair employment practices bill “in almost every single senate between 1946 and 1964, and it keeps getting rejected, until it’s included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”
6. 1970: Amendment to Abolish Electoral College
The 1950s and ‘60s were a turning point in which some major civil rights legislation survived the filibuster. Strom Thurmond’s record-breaking 24-hour filibuster—the longest continuous filibuster by one person—failed to stop the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. The filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act also failed to stop that legislation from passing.
There was a momentum during this period that led to Washington, D.C. winning the right to vote for president and elect its own mayor and city council (which for the past century, it hadn’t been able to do), and a “redistricting revolution” in the Supreme Court that helped make voting districts more equally representatives. In this climate, the United States came very close to abolishing the Electoral College, an indirect voting system originally designed to give southern states more power because of their large enslaved population of Black people.
In September 1969, the House of Representatives voted 338 to 70 in favor of a constitutional amendment that would have abolished the Electoral College. The huge margin by which the vote was won mirrored the fact that, according to a 1968 Gallup poll, 80 percent of Americans believed U.S. citizens should directly elect their president.
Yet in 1970, a group of southern senators succeeded in killing the bill by filibustering it. More than 50 years later, the Electoral College remains the way that the U.S. elects its president and vice president.