When a member of the U.S. Senate wants to delay a vote, they can talk for as long as they want – and they don’t even have to talk about the bill. This is called a filibuster, and it has been used in some impressive ways. Senator Strom Thurmond spoke for nearly 23 hours in 1986, only stopping because he had to use the bathroom. He had resorted to reading the phone book and singing!
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 it wasn’t used much until the late 1800s. When Congress came together 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
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 ended 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?