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Filibuster: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Some senators have talked for hours about random things – one even read a phonebook!

By:  |  January 28, 2021  |    442 Words

The filibuster is a tactic used in the U.S. Senate to delay decisions on a bill or other piece of legislation. It is a way to prevent a vote on a measure by speaking for as long as possible. Some senators have spoken on the floor for an extraordinarily long time to try to prevent bills they opposed from passing.

When a senator is filibustering on the floor, their statements don’t have to be related to the legislation being debated. Some lawmakers have resorted to talking about bizarre topics. On June 12, 1935, Louisiana Senator Huey Long spoke for almost a day. He went so far as to recite cooking instructions for various southern dishes. He stopped when he had to use the restroom.

Senator Alfonse D’Amato almost broke the record for the longest filibuster set by Senator Strom Thurmond in 1986 when he spoke for nearly 23 hours. When he struggled to think of new subjects to talk about, he began reading the telephone book. At one point, he started singing a song to stretch his time.

The Senate can defeat a filibuster if it invokes cloture, which places a thirty-hour time limit on debates over a bill. Cloture requires a vote of at least 60 senators.

How Was the Filibuster Created?

The filibuster was accidentally created in the late 1700s, but wasn’t actively used until the late 1800s. When Congress convened in 1789, both chambers had a rule that stated that only a majority vote was needed to end a debate. This means that if the side that wishes to end debate wins by only one vote, it will end.

The House decided to keep this rule, but the Senate dropped it in 1806 and did not replace it with another. This opened the possibility that senators could use the filibuster to stall the proceedings.

Debate Over the Filibuster

Senator Alfonse D’Amato

Senator Alfonse D’Amato

Over the past twenty years, debate over the tactic has grown, with some suggesting that the Senate consider bills in similar fashion to the House. Some argue that the filibuster protects the right to free speech in the Senate and allows the party with fewer lawmakers to make their voices heard. Others have criticized the filibuster, claiming that it wastes time that could be used to discuss other matters.

Democrats did away with the filibuster for confirming presidential appointees under President Obama, but didn’t go so far as to include the Supreme Court. Republicans under President Trump ended the filibuster for Supreme Court confirmations. So far, the filibuster still exists for general legislation, but how long will that last?

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