July 30, 2021

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What Is a Filibuster?

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If you keep up with current political events in the United States, or even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard mention of filibustering. But what is it, why does the U.S. Senate do it, and why are people talking about getting rid of the filibuster?

Filibuster Definition and Explanation

Because Senate rules do not impose time limits on senators speaking, and voting procedures for bills can only start after a speaker’s time ends, filibustering arose as a way to essentially talk or otherwise delay Senate business for so long that voting cannot happen. These days, the most common filibuster uses are when one senator, or a group of them, gives a marathon speech so long that no other Senate member has an opportunity to introduce or vote on legislation.

The filibuster was first used in the very first Senate session and is derived from a Spanish term for pirates. Using a filibuster to prevent voting isn’t disallowed, but some see it as a perversion of justice because it exploits Senate rules and can leave important bills dead in the water.

Notable Filibuster Uses

While far from a comprehensive list, here are a few standout filibuster uses:

  • In 1957 Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., unsuccessfully filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes to prevent the Civil Rights Act from passing.
  • Chris Murphy, D-Conn., filibustered for 15 hours in 2016 in an attempt to force Senate action on gun-control legislation.
  • In 2013 Rand Paul, R-Ky., attempted to delay a vote to confirm John Brennan as CIA director by filibustering for 13 hours. Brennan went on to be confirmed, and soon after the Senate disallowed the usage of filibusters related to confirmation of Cabinet officials. The Senate now also does not allow filibusters for any federal judicial confirmations, including to the Supreme Court.
  • Ted Cruz, R-Texas, advocated for defunding Obamacare during an infamous 2013 filibuster that lasted 21 hours and included reading from the book “Green Eggs and Ham.”

Cloture and Abolishing the Filibuster

For centuries, opponents of the filibuster have attempted to curtail the practice in various ways. The most successful of these was the establishment of cloture in 1917, which allowed Senators to close debate on certain issues with a two-thirds majority vote. Because a majority that large is difficult to obtain, some argue that cloture does not do enough to combat the rampant use of the filibuster.

After decades of such complaints, cloture was updated in 1975 to require a three-fifths majority vote (60 senators) instead of two-thirds (67). This was after the filibuster was notably used multiple times, particularly by southern senators, during the civil rights movement to prevent the passage of legislation such as anti-lynching laws.

With such a checkered history, it’s no wonder why talk of doing away with the filibuster entirely has remained steady through the centuries. The latest movement to end the practice came during the summer of 2021, when Democratic Party lawmakers suggested that getting rid of the filibuster would allow current President Biden’s agenda to be enacted much more easily.

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