At any given point, members of Congress can be locked in a debate over a particular piece of legislation. Republicans and Democrats tend to have different views on most topics, and these disagreements often lead to both sides trying to get their way.
There are several tactics that either side can use to get an edge over their opposition. One such tool is the filibuster, which can be used by the party opposing the passage of a bill proposed by the other side.
What Is a Filibuster?
The filibuster is a tactic used in the U.S. Senate to delay or block decisions on a bill or other piece of legislation. It is a way to prevent a vote on a measure by stalling for as long as possible. A senator using the filibuster might do so by introducing procedures that take a lot of time to go through or give excessively long speeches on the floor when it’s their turn to speak.
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 necessarily 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 very first filibuster happened in 1837. However, it was only used about two dozen times in the 19th century. By the time President Jimmy Carter was in office, the tactic was used about 20 times in one year.
Debate Over the Filibuster
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?