A filibuster is a political strategy in which a senator speaks—or threatens to speak—for hours on end to delay efforts to vote for a bill. The unusual tactic takes advantage of a U.S. Senate rule that says a senator, once recognized on the floor, may speak on an issue without being impeded by anyone. While various rule changes have tempered the filibuster’s power over the past century, it still offers unique leverage to the minority political party in the Senate.
The term filibuster originated from the 18th-century word “flibustier,” which referred to pirates who pillaged the Spanish colonies in the West Indies, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. By the mid-1800s the term had evolved to filibuster and taken on political meaning, describing the process by which long-winded senators hold the legislative body hostage by their verbiage.
Actor James Stewart made the filibuster famous in the 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the movie, Stewart plays a young senator who talks for nearly 24 hours to delay a vote on a corrupt public works bill.
A real-life senator, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, topped Stewart’s character’s performance in 1957. Sen. Thurmond armed himself with throat lozenges and malted milk balls and spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes to stall passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. As part of his extended performance, the then 55-year-old senator read the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Criminal Code and the voting laws of 48 states.
According to Nadine Cohodas’s 1993 biography, Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change, Thurmond prepared by first dehydrating in a steam room, in hopes of avoiding having to use a bathroom for many hours.
After 12 hours, Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois, tried to speed matters along and placed a pitcher of orange juice on Thurmond’s desk, Cohodas writes. Thurmond drank a glass before an aide removed it from his reach.
Strategy Born Through a Loophole
Throughout history, senators have debated the merits of the filibuster. Some argue it’s an important tactic empowering a minority party that otherwise would have little sway in the Senate. Others contend it plays too much of a role and is undemocratic in the way it can paralyze the ability of the majority to act.
There is no filibuster in the House of Representatives because rules adopted in that larger legislative body strictly limit the amount of time each representative may speak on the House floor.
The loophole that permits a senator’s right to speak endlessly on the senate floor dates to Vice President Aaron Burr, who declared in 1805 that the Senate need not be burdened by too many procedural rules. Back then a process to end debate on legislation, known as the “previous question” motion, was rarely used, so upon Burr’s recommendation, the senate dropped it in 1806.
Minority party senators soon figured out that talking endlessly on the Senate floor could prolong debate indefinitely and gum up progress on a bill or nomination. The first successful filibuster was recorded in 1837, when a group of Whig senators who opposed President Andrew Jackson filibustered to prevent Jackson’s allies from expunging a resolution of censure against him.
Rule 22: De-Fanging the Filibuster
The filibuster’s habit of stalling the legislative process frustrated various senators throughout the 1800s, who tried unsuccessfully multiple times to abolish the rule. Finally, in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson urged change after his push to arm merchant ships against German U-boats during the run-up to World War I failed in the face of senate filibusters.
Wilson denounced the senators who had stalled his wartime proposal as a “little group of willful men” who had “rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible.” He rallied public outcry against the tactic and lobbied the Senate to adopt Rule 22.
Rule 22 authorized a two-thirds vote to invoke “cloture,” or official closure to debate. Upon the vote of a supermajority of senators, the rule limits consideration of a pending matter to a final 30 more hours of debate.
Rule 22 was first successfully applied in 1919 when the Senate invoked cloture to halt a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I. Even with the new cloture rule, however, filibusters remained an effective means to block legislation, since achieving a two-thirds vote is difficult.
Among the most notable examples of when the Senate managed to invoke cloture was in 1967 when a group of Southern lawmakers tried filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Filibusters against the landmark act, which included bans on lynching and discrimination in public accommodations, went on for 57 days before the Senate mustered a supermajority of 67 votes to call for cloture.
Less Drama, More Limits
Changes in senate practice would eventually curb the drama of the filibuster. In the early 1970s, Senate leaders adopted changes that allowed more than one bill or matter to be pending on the floor at once. Before, with only one bill under consideration at a time, a filibuster could stop all other matters in the Senate—as long as a senator kept talking.
Now, with multiple measures moving at once, leadership can simply set aside a controversial bill as theoretical “debate” continues, and move onto other matters in the meantime.
By 1975, rules were further changed to make it easier to invoke cloture, requiring just a three-fifths majority vote to end a filibuster, or 60 votes. Efforts to halt filibusters remain challenging however, since 41 senators can indefinitely block a bill by refusing to end theoretical debate or vote for cloture.
As partisan clashing came to a head in the 1990s and 2000s, senators turned to the filibuster more frequently in an effort to thwart the majority party. According to research by UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair, there was an average of one filibuster per Congress during the 1950s.
That number grew steadily since and spiked in 2007 and 2008 (the 110th Congress), when there were 52 filibusters. By the time the 111th Congress adjourned in 2010, the number of filibusters had risen to 137 for the entire two-year term.
Nominations Freed from Filibuster
One way the filibuster can no longer be used is in blocking executive and judicial branch nominees. In 2013, Democrats held a majority in the Senate and had grown frustrated by stalled nominations by President Barack Obama for cabinet posts and federal judgeships.
Then-majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, citing “unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction” by Senate Republicans, prompted a call to use the “nuclear option.” This option, voted in by a 52 to 48 vote along party lines, changed the rules so that all executive-branch Cabinet appointments and judicial nominations below the Supreme Court can proceed with a simple majority of 51 votes.
Apart from nominations, filibusters have become so engrained within the Senate’s process that new bills generally do not go to vote unless the leadership is assured they have at least 60 votes. Even the prospect of a filibuster can hold up a final vote or force a bill’s supporters to make changes in a bill.
That means that, while the filibuster remains very much alive in its current form, endless performances by long-winded, bleary-eyed, dehydrated senators are now mostly limited to the movies and history books.
The Art of the Filibuster: How Do You Talk for 24 Hours Straight? BBC News.
The Senate Filibuster, Explained. New York Times.
Filibuster and Cloture. The United States Senate.
Filibusters and Cloture in the Senate. Congressional Research Service.
The Silenced Majority. The Atlantic.
Senate Floor Procedures. The United States Senate.
Filibuster, cloture and what the ‘nuclear option’ means for Gorsuch nomination and future of the Senate. Los Angeles Times.
The Longest Filibuster in History Lasted More Than a Day—Here’s How It went Down. Business Insider.