The Filibuster: History, and Practices Today
Political Science 411
April 15th 2010
Anyone who has seen the great political film “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” will undoubtedly remember the famous filibuster by actor Jimmy Stewart in the end of the movie to save the boy’s summer camp. This would forever glorify the senate proceeding of the filibuster. Whether the filibuster is discussed in the news, or written in the papers, it is by far the most well known political and most popular proceeding in our Congress today. The filibuster, simply defined, is extended debate that restricts the voting of a bill. In practice, the filibuster is used to delay, modify, or defeat legislation. Used as a tool of the minority party, it can be used to halt the voting process in the Senate on any bill or to end a bill entirely. The following video is from Senator Alfonse D’ Amato, giving what is typically deemed as a classic filibuster in which a Senator rambles for hours and hours on useless content:
In this video, Senator Amato is filibustering a bill that would later cut hundreds of jobs from a typewriter company in upper-state New York. Amato, filibustered for the fourth longest time in Senate history for a total of 15 hours and 14 minutes. Although this video is much like what most people think when they think of a filibuster, this is a rare case. Today the filibuster is not only a tool of the minority party to halt legislation, but the threat of a filibuster can be just as equally effective. In order to have a better understanding of how a filibuster helps the minority party in Congress, it is necessary to look at how a filibuster has been used in the past, the tools that can be used to halt a filibuster, and how the filibuster has changed in the Senate today.
Firstly, the filibuster’s history is quite short compared to that of our Congress. In fact, according to author Walter J. Oleszek in his novel “Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process”, prior to the 1970’s, conservative Southern Democrats trying to stop the passing of Civil Rights legislation, were almost the only users of the filibuster. However, since the 1970’s, the filibuster has been used progressively more and more, even where today the threat of the filibuster can be a daily occurrence. The filibuster is usually glorified in most people’s minds, in that they consider a filibuster as a Senator reading from a newspaper, phonebook, or just speaking for hours and hours to stop a bill from being passed. Which is certainly somewhat correct, however a filibuster is really any extended debate on the Senate floor so that the bill cannot be voted on. In order to fully understand how the filibuster works, it is necessary to take a closer look at how a bill becomes a law according to Senate proceedings. The entire process of how a bill becomes a law is quite complex, however to understand the filibuster it is really only necessary to comprehend the process leading up to a vote in the Senate. Unlike the House of Representatives, which has rules setting the number of hours for how long they can debate on a bill, in the United States Senate there is no limit on debate. Therefore, a senator could filibuster to not allow the majority party to even bring up the matter of voting on the bill. Until amendments were added to change this rule, the filibuster was used in a manor that is most widely known, however it still wasn’t highly used, rather only used in extreme cases. Today, a filibuster is used much more often than in the past and a threat of a filibuster even more. Although legislation has been passed to possibly limit debate the filibuster is still a widely used tool in the Senate today.
It may seem that there is no way to stop a filibuster from happening, however the Senate has put rules into place that not only changed the limit of debate in the Senate, but also changed the filibuster as a whole. After a long period of Senators complaining about filibuster practices, in 1917 the Senate adopted Rule XXII, which gave the Senate the ability to end extended debate by cloture. Under Rule XXII, sixteen senators must sign a cloture petition, and after this is invoked, it limits the number of hours for debate on the floor to only 30 hours of equal speaking time between the parties. However to invoke cloture the Senate must have a unanimous consent agreement (UCA) reached in order to end floor debate, and proceed with the voting of a bill (Oleszek 203). A UCA, by definition in the Senate, is three-fifths of the majority, or 60 votes. To better understand this, please look at the video below:
In this video Democratic Majority Leader, Harry Reid, is trying to pass a cloture motion to limit debate on the bill and the amendments that go with it. Reid is successful in getting this; therefore the debate for this bill was limited to 30 hours the next time it was debated. There is no limit on the number of times cloture can be sought on a piece of legislation, which is beneficial to majority party because they can keep asking to limit debate until the other side grows tired. However, although the debate is still limited there have been times in the past where the minority party uses the 30 hours invoked by the cloture motion to use “filibuster-like” practices. In this next video, Harry Reid, prior to him being Majority leader in the Senate, uses the 30 hours granted to him for a filibuster.
Clearly, from this video it can be hard to tell what is truly going on here, but this video is from 2003, when the Democratic minority in the Senate, lead by Harry Reid wanted to filibuster a Judicial nominee for the Supreme Court. This filibuster had been invoked by the terms of a Cloture vote which is why the debate was limited to 30 hours. Although Republicans said that this had never been done, they invoked cloture and allowed 30 hours of a “filibuster” in which talking time was shared for both sides. The filibuster really didn’t do anything, but rather just halted the inevitable and in the end George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee was put into power. Although Reid and the Democrats were unable to stop the nominee from taking position in the court, the filibuster was, and still is, a useful tactic of the minority to display their opinions and passion for their beliefs for the world to see.
The minority party can use the filibuster to halt or even stop legislation from coming on the floor for a vote, however there is another way to do this. According to a Huffington Post article dated February 21st 2009, to halt or deny access to voting can be done by a senator continuously calling for an absence of a quorum when the majority tries to bring the bill to a vote. A quorum call, is asking the President pro-temp to call all senators to the floor to take roll for a vote, because almost all senators must be on the floor at a time of a vote, if the minority party just has one person on the floor at all times then the absence of a quorum call could be used as another way of continuously stalling a vote on a bill. This method has been used in the past; for example, the Republicans who were at the time, Senate minority, used it to halt legislation to go through in 1988, which greatly frustrated the Democrats and then Majority Leader Robert Byrd to the point even where Byrd sent a security guard in to arrest minority leader Alan Simpson. Here is a clip from the proceedings after this incident:
After discovering that there are other techniques that essentially bring the same outcome of a filibuster, the question now becomes: if a cloture vote can limit all debate and proceed to the voting of the bill, and a filibuster and the act of continuously calling for a quorum can stall debate and may lead to the demise of a bill, then why and how has the filibuster become such a famous tool for the minority party to use against the majority? The answer to this question can be seen clearly in the case of the Senator from South Carolina, Storm Thurmond, and his filibuster against Civil Rights legislation in 1957. Thurmond set the record for the longest filibuster in Senate history for his 24 hours and 15 minute rant against the bill. Although it did pass, the Senator’s filibuster put him into a league of his own with regards to Senators from the South. Thurmond gained high publicity and high public awareness from his act, thereby making him one of the most famous senators from the South to date. Which is why a filibuster now can be considered not only as a tool to try and stop legislation, but as a political tool to help answer the number one goal of every Senator or any person in politics: re-election. A long ranting filibuster today may seem like it is a waste of time for anyone that does not end up getting the legislation to be put down, but it still gets the senator’s name out there, and makes huge leaps to improve his or her approval with their constituents.
Overall, it is quite clear now that the filibuster is a very complex method in the Senate today, and one that is definitely not as simple as most people think. Used by the minority party, a filibuster can slow down or deny legislation to come through the senate by not allowing a vote to occur. This phenomenon would not be possible if it were not for the senate’s necessity for a unanimous consent in order to a vote on a bill. The filibuster, and even the threat of a filibuster, is still a tool used more and more today by the minority party not only to try and halt a bill, but in the cases where a senator speaks for hours and hours, to try and bring political recognition to themselves and their cause. Although the filibuster can be like Jimmy Stewart’s famous rant for a boy’s camp in the movie “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”, majority of the time the filibuster is used to threaten the majority party to tell them that the minority will not stand for the bill that is trying to be past, and they will do anything to stop it.
Grim, Ryan. “The myth of the Filibuster: Dems can’t make Republicans talk all Night. February 2009: Huffington Post. Web 14 April 2010.
Oleszek, Walter J. Congressional Procedures and Policy Process. Washington, D.C: CQ Press, 2007. Print.
Sinclair, Barbara. Unorthodox Lawmaking: New Legislative Processes in the U.S Congress. University of California Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2007. Print.
Smith, Steven S. Jason M. Roberts. Ryan J. Vander Wielen. The American Congress. Cambridge, NY. Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print