Understanding the Senate Filibuster as Calls for Its Abolition Grow

20th-century "cloture rule" paved the way for opposition to talk a bill to death

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Some members of Congress are pushing to end a longstanding Senate custom. The Senate filibuster allows a senator to delay action on a bill by speaking for long periods of time. What is the history of the Senate filibuster—and why the uproar?

A bill is the most common form of legislation in the United States and it can originate in the House or the Senate, then becoming a law when both the House and Senate approve it, also getting the approval of the U.S. president. Photo By Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock

In United States government, a senator can delay action on a bill or another issue by talking and holding the floor for extended periods of time. The maneuver first came to the public’s attention in the 1939 Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which Jimmy Stewart’s character delayed a vote on a bill by speaking on the floor for more than 24 hours.

Now, in a divided Congress, Republicans and Democrats are threatening to use or abolish filibustering, respectively, to influence bills in the Senate. How does this process work one way or the other and why is it in some legislators’ crosshairs?

In her video series Understanding the U.S. Government, Dr. Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University, explained the Senate custom and how it’s changed over the years.

Birth of the Filibuster

“Back in the early 20th century, some senators became frustrated that many bills were stalling in committee,” Dr. Victor said. “To fix this, they sought a mechanism to force bills to come to the floor for a vote on their merits, so they created Senate Rule 22, known as the cloture rule. In ‘Senate-ese,’ cloture means to end debate and vote on a bill.”

According to Dr. Victor, while the establishment of this rule initially relieved some gridlock in Congress, use of it evolved notably throughout the century. Since the 1970s, the cloture rule has required that a cloture proposal on a bill has the support of three-fifths of the Senate, meaning 60 of the 100 senators must vote for cloture to end debate. By this time, senators had actually begun to use the cloture rule to block legislation on split issues.

If a bill came to the floor for debate, someone who opposed the bill could filibuster by speaking about the bill and refusing to yield the floor to any other senator,” Dr. Victor said.

Something to Talk About

Speaking about one bill for hours on end sounds like a tall order. Fortunately, Dr. Victor said, there’s a lot of wiggle room.

“Actually, the speech didn’t need to be about the bill: It could be about anything, just so long as the speaker does not yield. Senators have filibustered by reading from children’s books, singing songs, and reading a phone book, just to keep hold of the floor. Unless 60 votes existed to invoke cloture and force an end to the debate, the filibustering senator could essentially talk a bill to death.”

When a bill doesn’t have the three-fifths supermajority needed to invoke cloture and bring the vote to the floor, its supporters often must admit defeat and allow the bill to die in the Senate. Dr. Victor said the world record for filibustering was by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, a well-known segregationist who successfully stopped the Civil Rights Act of 1957 from passing. Senator Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes.

“Today, no one talks bills to death anymore,” she said. “Senators gauge the support for bills and estimate whether or not a bill has enough support to win cloture. If a bill does not have enough support to invoke cloture, Senate leaders will typically not bring that bill to the floor, knowing that if they do, the chamber’s time will be wasted.”

It’s little wonder that the Senate has such an interest in using or abolishing the filibuster. Currently, Republicans hold 50 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate, while Democrats hold 48 seats, with two senators regularly voting similarly to Democrats. This essentially splits the Senate in half, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaking vote.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily