September 28, 1981
The movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington accustomed Americans to think of a filibuster as someone holding the Senate floor for hours in order to keep a bill from passing. In fact, filibusters include many strategies to block action. In the modern Senate, extraordinarily long speeches have been aimed at drawing attention to an issue rather than blocking legislative action. Such was the case on September 28, 1981, when Wisconsin senator William Proxmire rose to deliver what would become one of the longest speeches in Senate history.
It was 6:10 on a Monday evening when Senator Proxmire took the floor and began discussing his concern over the rising national debt ceiling. The previous year’s debt limit, $985 billion, would expire in two days. President Ronald Reagan had requested that Congress increase the debt ceiling to $1.079 trillion. Proxmire offered an amendment to cap the debt at $995 billion. He wanted the public to be aware that for the first time in American history the national debt ceiling would exceed a trillion dollars.
In an offhand manner, Senator Proxmire said that he would be speaking at length on the issue. “In fact," he said, "I intend to speak all night.” It took a few minutes for the majority whip, Senator Ted Stevens, to ask: “Did the Senator state that it is his intention to keep the Senate in session all evening?”
“That is correct,” Proxmire responded.
“On the debt ceiling bill?”
“That is right.”
“I see,” said Senator Stevens, who would have to round up senators to preside through the night.
Senator Proxmire went on to speak for more than 16 hours, interrupted only twice for friendly questions from Senators Robert C. Byrd and James Exon, which enabled him to dart out to the restroom. For the last eight and a half hours he spoke uninterrupted. A long-distance runner, Proxmire later told reporters that he had gotten a second wind. His was called a “gentleman’s filibuster,” because he promised in advance not to block a vote on the debt increase or use any parliamentary tactic other than his physical stamina. He ended at 10:27 the next morning, so as not to delay the Senate’s regularly scheduled start of business at 10:30—otherwise he might have spoken even longer.
Concluding his remarks on Tuesday morning, he apologized to the presiding officers, pages, reporters, and everyone else in the Senate who had been “so courteous and so helpful and so friendly in spite of the fact that I must say I have been a terrible trial to them.”
Admittedly, his all-nighter was symbolic, but William Proxmire had once been a reporter for the Madison Capital Times and he believed passionately in the “informing function” of Congress. He argued that it was necessary to inform and to arouse public opinion in order to change it. On this issue, he was on the losing side. His amendment was tabled and the debt passed a trillion dollars—and has increased tenfold since then—but he felt that keeping the Senate in session all through that long night had made his point.