Whether praised as the protector of political minorities from the tyranny of the majority, or attacked as a tool of partisan obstruction, the right of unlimited debate in the Senate, including the filibuster, has been a key component of the Senate’s unique role in the American political system.
The tactic of using long speeches to delay action on legislation appeared in the very first session of the Senate. On September 22, 1789, Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay wrote in his diary that the “design of the Virginians . . . was to talk away the time, so that we could not get the bill passed.” As the number of filibusters grew in the 19th century, the Senate had no formal process to allow a majority to end debate and force a vote on legislation or nominations.
While there were relatively few examples of the practice before the 1830s, the strategy of “talking a bill to death” was common enough by mid-century to gain a colorful label—the filibuster. Derived from a Dutch word for “freebooter” and the Spanish “filibusteros”—to describe the pirates then raiding Caribbean islands—the term began appearing in American legislative debates in the 1850s. “I saw my friend standing on the other side of the House filibustering,” commented Mississippi’s Albert Brown on January 3, 1853. A month later, North Carolina senator George Badger complained of “filibustering speeches," and the term became a permanent part of our political lexicon.
The earliest filibusters also led to the first demands for what we now call “cloture,” a method for ending debate and bringing a question to a vote. In 1841 the Democratic minority attempted to run out the clock on a bill to establish a national bank. Frustrated, Whig senator Henry Clay threatened to change Senate rules to limit debate. Clay’s proposal prompted others to warn of even longer filibusters to prevent any change to the rules. “I tell the Senator,” proclaimed a defiant William King of Alabama, “he may make his arrangements at his boarding house for the [entire] winter.” While some senators found filibusters to be objectionable, others exalted the right of unlimited debate as a key tradition of the Senate, vital to tempering the power of political majorities.
Filibusters became more frequent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to serious debate about changing Senate rules to curtail the practice. At that point the Senate had grown larger and busier, and the sheer amount of work to be done in each session meant that a filibustering senator could disrupt the progress of the body and gain concessions from senators who wanted to get their bills passed.
In 1917, with frustration mounting and at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, senators adopted a rule (Senate Rule 22) that allowed the Senate to invoke cloture and limit debate with a two-thirds majority vote. This rule was first put to the test in 1919, when the Senate invoked cloture to end a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. Even with the new cloture rule, however, filibusters remained an effective means to block legislation, since a two-thirds vote was difficult to obtain. Over the next four decades, the Senate managed to invoke cloture only five times. Filibusters proved to be particularly useful to southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching bills. Not until 1964 did the Senate successfully overcome a filibuster to pass a major civil rights bill. Nevertheless, a growing group of senators continued to be frustrated with the filibuster and pushed to change the cloture threshold. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds of senators voting to three-fifths of all senators duly chosen and sworn, or 60 of the current 100 senators. Today, filibusters remain a part of Senate practice, although only on legislation. The Senate adopted new precedents in the 2010s to allow a simple majority to end debate on nominations.
The type of filibuster most familiar to Americans is the marathon speech by a small group of senators, or even a single senator, such as the filibuster staged by fictional senator Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. There have been some famous filibusters in the real-life Senate as well. In 1917, for example, Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette used the filibuster to demand free speech during wartime. During the 1930s, Senator Huey P. Long effectively used the filibuster against bills that he thought favored the rich over the poor. In the 1950s Oregon senator Wayne Morse famously used the filibuster to educate the public on issues he considered to be of national interest. The record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
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