A member of Congress holds forth in this 19th-century scene.
To filibuster or not to filibuster? That is the thorny question that has kept many a senator awake into the night. The rules of the U.S. Senate allow for “unlimited debate,” and the filibuster has long been a means for delaying or defeating legislation through endless debate, or at least endless talking. The word filibuster (both a noun and a verb) formerly was applied to a freelance military adventurer (think: pirate). As it has been used by the minority party in the Senate, the tactic is a sort of wrench-throwing guerrilla politics. In essence, the minority opposition’s goal is to wear down the majority through continuous talking—the subject of the speechifying need not be relevant to the issue at hand. And with the now more common “silent filibuster,” delays can be achieved without even the expenditure of words! In theory, the majority will eventually feel the pressure to amend the legislation, or withdraw it altogether.
The majority party can end a filibuster only by invoking cloture, a call for a vote to end debate that requires a three-fifths’ majority to pass—that is, 60 votes when all 100 senators are present. For most of the Senate’s recent history, majorities have not been large enough to win a cloture vote on a strict party-line basis. So long as the minority party has at least 41 votes, it can prevail.
The majority party has frequently made noise about reforming or doing away with the filibuster, arguing that, by limiting majority rule, the filibuster obstructs democracy in action. But the members of the majority tend to “hedge their bets,” knowing they are potentially only one election cycle away from becoming the minority themselves. In the 113th Congress, the Senate acted to reform the filibuster “around the edges,” leaving it mostly unchanged. This led some observers to say that filibuster reform was “killed.”
Image credit: © Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
- Disarm the Filibuster
This article by a George Mason University history professor argues for the reform of the filibuster.
(Source: History News Network, January 7, 2013)
- Why Filibuster Reform Failed, and Where It Might Go Next
This article analyzes what happened in the current Senate session with respect to filibuster reform.
(Source: Washington Post, January 24, 2013)
- Senate Approves Bipartisan Filibuster Reform, but Changes Are Modest
Read about the Senate deal that some call “reform” but that left the filibuster basically intact.
(Source: PBS, January 7, 2013)
- Filibuster and Cloture
In this article, the U.S. Senate Historical Office sums up the history of the filibuster and the cloture rule.
(Source: senate.gov; accessed January 31, 2013)
- The History of the Filibuster, in One Graph
View this interesting graphic representation of how and when the filibuster has been used.
(Source: Washington Post, May 15, 2012)