Have you ever wondered what the filibuster is? And why is it so controversial?
The filibuster is a U.S. Senate parliamentary procedure used to prevent action on legislation. The term filibuster is from a Dutch word meaning "pirate." Using the filibuster to delay debate or block legislation has a long history.
There is debate on how the filibuster was created. Some believe it was intended as part of the vision of the Senate as a deliberative body. Others say it was created by accident by Vice President Aaron Burr in 1805 as he presided over the Senate. He advised simplifying the Senate rule book by eliminating the "previous question" motion that allows a simple majority to end debate and to conduct a vote. This rule still exists in the House of Representatives, which does not have a filibuster. It still took a few decades before a filibuster occurred in 1837.
There are different types of filibuster. The "talking" filibuster involves a Senator taking to the floor and talking for as long as they could. The longest filibuster lasted 24 hours and was by Senator Strom Thurmond in opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1957. More commonly, a "silent" filibuster has been used. If at least 41 Senators threaten a filibuster, Senate leaders can refuse to bring a vote and legislation is blocked.
Since the filibuster was established, calls for a cloture rule have been made. Cloture is a motion to end debate and bring a vote. In 1917, during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, a cloture rule was finally instituted. Wilson was a vocal proponent of cloture. He is quoted as saying the “Senate of the United States is the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority 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.” Under the rule, two thirds majority could end a filibuster by invoking cloture and in 1975 it was lowered to 60. There have been over 2,000 filibusters since 1917.
In recent years, debate over the filibuster has become a partisan issue. Proponents of the filibuster believe it serves a purpose and Senate rules and traditions should be upheld. Opponents say the filibuster obstructs the Senate majority acting on legislation on important issues including civil rights. They want reform or abolishing of the filibuster.
Filibusters and Cloture in the Senate
Filibuster Reform: A Short Guide