A filibuster is a legal political procedure by which members of the Senate are able to hold up voting on a bill by extending the debate and refusing to yield the floor.
If you’ve ever had to stand in front of a classroom and deliver a speech, you know exactly how long five minutes can feel… interminable. Now, imagine having to stand in front of a room of career legislatures and speak for 24 hours straight—without any bathroom breaks.
Fortunately, unless you are a member of the United States Senate or a handful of other legislative bodies around the world, you probably won’t be in a situation calling for such a marathon act of oration, but any Senator who wants to use a filibuster should practice their endurance!
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What is a Filibuster?
When you hear the word “filibuster” today, it is almost synonymous with the United States Senate, as they are the legislative body that employs this particular tactic more than anywhere else in the world. A filibuster is a legal political procedure by which members of the Senate are able to hold up voting on a bill by extending the debate and refusing to yield the floor. This is a powerful move that is often employed by the minority party to prevent voting on a bill that will likely pass, against their party’s wishes.
Traditionally, a single individual or a group of individuals from the same party will speak at length, sometimes for more than 24 hours, as a way to delay or fully prevent the voting on a piece of proposed legislation. While this is a completely legal maneuver in the Senate, the US House of Representatives isn’t subject to this somewhat tricky approach, as they have formal time limits for how long a given member is allowed to speak. However, that wasn’t always the case; the filibuster could also be used in the House of Representatives until 1842, when an act limiting the time of representatives was passed.
As you can imagine, speaking constantly for hours, or even days, means that people will often run out of things to talk about. In other words, once every conceivable point about a particular bill or issue has been made, the Senator must continue to speak and hold the floor. This has resulted in a number of unusual items being read on the Senate floor, from the bible and entire state’s lawbooks to phonebooks and Shakespeare’s collected works.
Perhaps more importantly, such a tool has the power to completely paralyze a government’s proceedings, meaning that it must be a sword that is carefully wielded. Political parties have long memories, so there has always been a tenuous relationship with the filibuster from both sides of the aisle. Certain provisions and alterations to the senatorial procedure have offset the immense power of this tool, although it remains a perpetual threat to the majority party.
History of Filibusters
Although filibusters are most closely associated with American politics in this day and age, this technique has a much longer history, dating back to when the United States, and the entirety of the New World, was a far-off dream. In ancient Rome, the birthplace of democracy, Roman senators often displayed their oratory skills at length in order to forestall any voting. The Roman senate held firm to the rule of ending all debating and decision-making by dusk, so if a senator decided to speak until the sun went down, they could effectively obstruct the entire legislative body.
This concept has appeared in many other democracies as well, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, India, Canada, Austria, Hong Kong, France and Italy, among others, including some country’s state legislatures, even if the rule isn’t present at the federal level. The rules for each of these countries is slightly different, but most have certain rules that allow for a filibuster to be broken or ended by a majority or a supermajority vote by the other members of the body.
Although the tradition is more than 2,000 years old, it has seen a recent spike in popularity in the past century, perhaps as political parties have become more entrenched and uncompromising in their beliefs and party platforms. In the United States, for example, the number of times that a filibuster is used increased notably in the 2007-2008 Senate, when 139 motions were filed in response to filibusters, the first time that number had ever exceeded 100 in US history. Since that point, there have been at least 115 motions filed per Senate term, with 252 filed during the 2013-2014 term.
Are Filibusters Good or Bad?
The determination of whether filibusters are good or bad is difficult to make. Those is support of this tool call it the “soul of the Senate”, while others find it to be an obstructionist tactic that is often used to play politics and grandstand, and is also unfairly allowing the minority to dictate to the majority—seemingly counterintuitive to a democracy.
In the past, a filibuster was a much more effective bludgeon, as many of the regulations and rules for the Senate (in the US and elsewhere) have corrected some of the power “granted” to a filibuster. Using the US Senate as an example, again, there can be a vote for “cloture”, meaning a closing of the debate and an end to any filibuster, provided that 3/5 of the Senate votes in that way. Before 1917, there was no real limit to the time someone could carry on with a filibuster, which is when Rule 22 was enacted, requiring a 2/3 majority (a supermajority of 67 Senators) to end the debate.
Six decades later, this tool became even weaker, as the 3/5 rule was enacted in 1975, meaning that only 60 members of the Senate were required to put a halt to debate on a piece of legislation before voting could occur. Additionally, the 1970s ushered in an era where more than one piece of legislation could be concurrently addressed and debated on the floor. Essentially, if the Senate majority leader is expecting a filibuster on a given bill, or if they don’t confidently know that 60 members support the bill, they can simply set it aside and move on to other matters. While the number of attempted filibusters is increasing, the Senate’s ability to continue functioning, rather than being “held hostage” has also improved throughout American history.
So, in terms of whether these political tools are good or bad, it truly remains a matter of opinion. There are still moments when filibusters are used as a last-ditch attempt by a minority party to unfairly block a piece of legislation, but a filibuster is also an effective tool to protect the minority interests, to force additional attention and debate on bills that might otherwise be rapidly pushed through the house, to the president’s desk, where it can become law. As a tactic, a filibuster should be judged on which party is in control, what the substance of the bill contains, and what true purpose the filibuster is being used for.
A Final Word
There is a lot of talk about American politics, and (in the past) much of the world looked to the American governmental system for guidance. The use of the filibuster, and its function as a threat to governance and legislation, remains a controversial subject that should only be judged on individual contexts. There are arguments for and against its continued use, and like every other issue on the Senate floor, we should let it be discussed until an acceptable compromise is reached!
Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the U.S. Senate: 134 (Princeton Studies in American Politics: Historical, International, and Comparative Perspectives, 134)