October 19, 2009 at 6:32 PM
Written by Lewis D. Eigen
The term filibuster — from a Dutch word meaning “pirate” — became popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill.
The first filibusters in Congress took place in the 1830’s.
In the early years of Congress, representatives in the House as well as senators could filibuster. That was soon stopped by the House, but the Senate continued it.
The filibuster prerogative was unlimited originally.
In 1922 the Senate finally adopted a rule (Rule 22) for “cloture” that allowed a two thirds vote of the Senate to end a filibuster.
The first time cloture was invoked was in 1919. A minority of senators were filibustering against the ratification of the treaty ending World War I–The Treaty of Versailles.
The two-thirds requirement for cloture was changed by the Senate in 1975 to three-fifths–60 vote in a 100 person Senate.
The record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina’s J. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Click here for the story of the record-breaking filibuster.
The next longest was 15 hours by Huey Long in the 1930’s.
One of the first known practitioners of the filibuster was the Roman senator Cato the Younger. In debates over legislation he especially opposed, Cato would often obstruct the measure by speaking continuously until nightfall. As the Roman Senate had a rule requiring all business to conclude by dusk, Cato’s purposefully long-winded speeches were an effective device to forestall a vote.
In modern democracies, there have been versions of filibusters used in England, France, Ireland and New Zealand. In Canada the filibuster is very common in both houses of Parliament.
Filibusters in the Senate were quite rare until 1991, Twice as many filibusters took place in the 1991-1992 legislative session as took place in the entire nineteenth century. Today there are many more filibusters.
Filibusters have been used in the Senate to try and obstruct legislation as well as administrative matters. Treaties have been the target of filibusters as have confirmations of Presidential appointments. There is a myth that the filibuster has never been used against the ratification of a Supreme Court, but in 1968 the Republicans used the filibuster to block President Johnson’s nominee Abe Fortus for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The President withdrew the nomination.
Documentation and sources of the following quotations can be found at:
“The filibuster is the most important check on raw Presidential power.”
Robert C. Byrd
U. S. Congressman & U. S. Senator (Democrat, WV)
“The Senate of the United States is the only legislative body in the world that cannot act when it is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”
Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1924
28th President of the United States (Democrat, NJ)
“In the polarized Congress of today, the filibuster is one way to check the partisan domination we have. Because it forces the majority to negotiate with the other party, the filibuster is one of the few forces pushing toward the center”
Julian E. Zelizer
“Some people may call it a filibuster. I call it an extended educational dialogue.”
Orrin G. Hatch
U.S. Senator (Republican, UT)
Click here for the 2009 SOLUTIONS article on solving the Senate’s filibuster problem.
Entry filed under: History, Politics. Tags: Ancient Rome, Canada, Cato the Younger, Civil Rights, Civil Rights Act of 1957, cloture, England, fillibuster, France, History, Huey Long, Ireland, Julian E. Zelizer, Lyndon Johnson, New Zealand, Orrin Hatch, Politics, power, presidency, Robert C. Byrd, Roman Empire, Senate, Strom Thurmond, Treaty of Versailles, Woodrow Wilson.