Everything You Need to Know About the Filibuster

According to the dictionary: Filibuster; the use of irregular or obstructive tactics by a member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored or to force a decision against the will of the majority.

Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939

A filibuster is essentially a tyranny of the minority. It is a procedural device to give a voice to a minority of objectors to a rule of law. The founders of this country meant it to be a stop-gap measure to prevent enacting laws that night be ill-considered. It’s a last chance measure to ask ‘are we sure we’re doing the right thing?’

The founders of our nation recognized that popularism could lead to bad judgment due to sentiment of the times. They wanted a system of checks and balances. They wanted to know that they were making the right choice; not a decision based upon hysteria.

In some ways the filibuster has become a voice for resistance to change. It is often the old guard that wish to maintain the status quo who invoke the filibuster. And that’s understandable. Change is difficult. The norm is often too comfortable to accommodate a shift. The unknown is scary. Ultimately, the filibuster is a means to put on the brakes of legislation. It’s a way to reexamine the intent of the law.

Is this the right thing to do for everyone? Is it well considered? Or is it just a reactionary mandate? Perhaps we need a greater degree of certainty. All well and good until the filibuster; as it has recently become, turns into a weapon for those who wish to usurp democracy.

Some history: the term filibuster is of European origin, first coined in the nineteenth century in Spain, France, and Holland as ‘pirate’ or ‘freebooter’. In modern terms; a hijack. But the act of filibustering started long before that in another Senate; the Roman Senate. A Senator Cato the Younger wished to block a land reform bill by Julius Caesar with a filibuster in 59 BC. The art of obstructionism started well before the United States began. Today, filibustering has become an act of drama. It is little wonder that the United States has a Senate that so resembles days long past. All that is missing are the robes.

Most people recognize the filibuster from the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where Jimmy Stewart plays a fledgling politician who stands up for what he believes before congress for several hours until collapsing from exhaustion. His efforts are recognized as heroic and sways legislation from happening.

That is the spirit behind the filibuster. Unfortunately, the filibuster has evolved beyond an objection to an ideal. It has become the weapon against a democratically elected majority by a minority with nothing left to lose. It has become the tool of obstruction against an entire party. The ideal is no longer the issue; rather winning at all costs has become the goal. Even if it means the destruction of the entire economy. Even if it is not in the immediate best interest of the country. Even if it’s under false pretense regardless of the will of the majority.

Here’s the biggest problem; there is no debate. Previously, a filibuster was meant to inspire debate on a topic. Now, it is used to stop debate. It is entirely obstructionist. Look, if you have a complaint about legislation, use the filibuster to voice it; not block it. The filibuster was meant to further the conversation, not stop it.

The 112th Congress has begun and consequently, the filibuster rules are up for consideration. Given the abuse the Republicans have put it through, I think reform is necessary. We sent people to Washington D.C. to do our business, not prevent it from getting done. We have an opportunity to change the rules in the Senate (the date has been delayed until January 24th) and some have challenged that this would be an inopportune moment to do so. I would argue that there is no time like the present to do what is right.

Correction: an earlier version of the article listed Cato’s filibuster as occuring in 59 AD. It was 59 BC.

Update: Reader mclever actually dug up the Senate rules on the filibuster. They are in the comment section but I thought they should be included in the article. Thanks to mclever.

XXII. PRECEDENCE OF MOTIONS Point 2:

Notwithstanding the provisions of rule II or rule IV or any other rule of the Senate, at any time a motion signed by sixteen Senators, to bring to a close the debate upon any measure, motion, other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, is presented to the Senate, the Presiding Officer, or clerk at the direction of the Presiding Officer, shall at once state the motion to the Senate, and one hour after the Senate meets on the following calendar day but one, he shall lay the motion before the Senate and direct that the clerk call the roll, and upon the ascertainment that a quorum is present, the Presiding Officer shall, without debate, submit to the Senate by a yea-and-nay vote the question:

“Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close?” And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn — except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules, in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting — then said measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion of all other business until disposed of.

Thereafter no Senator shall be entitled to speak in all more than one hour on the measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, the amendments thereto, and motions affecting the same, and it shall be the duty of the Presiding Officer to keep the time of each Senator who speaks. Except by unanimous consent, no amendment shall be proposed after the vote to bring the debate to a close, unless it had been submitted in writing to the Journal Clerk by 1 o’clock p.m. on the day following the filing of the cloture motion if an amendment in the first degree, and unless it had been so submitted at least one hour prior to the beginning of the cloture vote if an amendment in the second degree. No dilatory motion, or dilatory amendment, or amendment not germane shall be in order. Points of order, including questions of relevancy, and appeals from the decision of the Presiding Officer, shall be decided without debate.

After no more than thirty hours of consideration of the measure, motion, or other matter on which cloture has been invoked, the Senate shall proceed, without any further debate on any question, to vote on the final disposition thereof to the exclusion of all amendments not then actually pending before the Senate at that time and to the exclusion of all motions, except a motion to table, or to reconsider and one quorum call on demand to establish the presence of a quorum (and motions required to establish a quorum) immediately before the final vote begins. The thirty hours may be increased by the adoption of a motion, decided without debate, by a threefifths affirmative vote of the Senators duly chosen and sworn, and any such time thus agreed upon shall be equally divided between and controlled by the Majority and Minority Leaders or their designees. However, only one motion to extend time, specified above, may be made in any one calendar day.

If, for any reason, a measure or matter is reprinted after cloture has been invoked, amendments which were in order prior to the reprinting of the measure or matter will continue to be in order and may be conformed and reprinted at the request of the amendment’s sponsor. The conforming changes must be limited to lineation and pagination.

No Senator shall call up more than two amendments until every other Senator shall have had the opportunity to do likewise.

Notwithstanding other provisions of this rule, a Senator may yield all or part of his one hour to the majority or minority floor managers of the measure, motion, or matter or to the Majority or Minority Leader, but each Senator specified shall not have more than two hours so yielded to him and may in turn yield such time to other Senators.

Notwithstanding any other provision of this rule, any Senator who has not used or yielded at least ten minutes, is, if he seeks recognition, guaranteed up to ten minutes, inclusive, to speak only.

After cloture is invoked, the reading of any amendment, including House amendments, shall be dispensed with when the proposed amendment has been identified and has been available in printed form at the desk of the Members for not less than twenty four hours.

Related Articles


About Mr. Universe

Mr. Universe is a musician/songwriter and an ex-patriot of the south. He currently lives and teaches at a University in the Pacific Northwest. He is a long distance hiker who has hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He is also an author and woodworker. An outspoken political voice, he takes a decidedly liberal stance in politics.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Everything You Need to Know About the Filibuster

  1. drfunguy says:

    An excerpt from Eric Altermans new book has several points relevant to this issue.
    He says: “We need a system that has fairer rules, that diminishes the role of money and that encourages politicians and journalists to investigate and portray the realities they observe honestly, thereby reducing the distorting lenses of finance, ideology and ignorance. ”
    and
    “In a standoff that captures the absurdity of [the Senate’s] method of self-policing, a 2006 bill to expose secret holds was itself the victim of a series of secret holds.”

    http://www.thenation.com/article/157512/kabuki-democracy-and-how-fix-it

  2. Mr. Universe says:

    Good article Dr.

  3. Mr. Universe says:

    There is a Republican movement afoot to end the Lame Duck session. That’s a whole ‘nother article but it illustrates just how far the obstuctionists are prepared to go.

  4. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    It was Cato the Younger and in 59 BC, not AD

  5. Now corrected. Thanks for the heads-up.

  6. Mr. Universe says:

    Good catch, Max. I wrote this at 3:00 AM. Bound to be some errors.

  7. mclever says:

    I think better would be a discussion of what the filibuster rules should be.

    What’s the required quorum?
    How long should the filibuster be able to delay voting?
    Should debate begin immediately?
    How often/quickly should they be able to call for vote to break the filibuster?

    I’m a bit fuzzy on the current rules, because until the past few years, so many had been just “customary” rather than actually codified into the Senate bylaws. Do any of the brilliant political minds around here know what the actual rules currently are, how they are customarily implemented, and what the most likely areas of abuse are? Given those areas of abuse, what reforms are most needed to prevent a minority from having carte blanche to block any and all legislative progress?

  8. shortchain says:

    mclever,

    here are the codified rules of the Senate.

    Have fun. (They’re not searchable, of course.)

  9. Mr. Universe says:

    @mclever

    It’s my understanding that
    1. secret holds will be abolished.
    2. you’ll actually have to filibuster like Bernie Sanders did recently
    3. 3/5ths of present Senators will be required to invoke cloture (60 out of 100 or 54 out of 90, etc.)

    In other words, you can’t phone in a threat of filibuster and then go out for beers with the speaker of the house. You actually have to stand and deliver your objections.

  10. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    You are quite welcome. And, as always, should you find errors in my postings, please feel free to correct.

    To quote Bart: “I deal in facts”, and when I make errors I prefer they be corrected.

  11. mclever says:

    Thanks, shortchain. Looks like I’ll be busy reading for a while…

    And, thanks Mr. U for the summary of proposed rules changes. What about the 30 hrs delay?

  12. Monotreme says:

    As I understand it, Sens. Udall, Harkin and Merkley have been driving the process of rules changes, but it will need to be negotiated:

    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0111/47186.html

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/weigel/archive/2011/01/05/read-sen-tom-udall-s-filibuster-reform-resolution.aspx

    The Senate has, through a procedural trick, held open the “Senate day” of Jan 5 until Jan 25. During the intervening time, they will negotiate the terms which (in my opinion) could range from status quo ante all the way to the most radical changes, which would be those set out in the Udall/Harkin/Merkley proposals.

  13. mclever says:

    For those interested in what the official Senate rules say about filibusters, I’ve copied the relevant reference below. For all the words used, the rules actually say precious little, which is probably why there’s now a push to codify things that have formerly just been courtesy.

    XXII. PRECEDENCE OF MOTIONS Point 2:

    Notwithstanding the provisions of rule II or rule IV or any other rule of the Senate, at any time a motion signed by sixteen Senators, to bring to a close the debate upon any measure, motion, other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, is presented to the Senate, the Presiding Officer, or clerk at the direction of the Presiding Officer, shall at once state the motion to the Senate, and one hour after the Senate meets on the following calendar day but one, he shall lay the motion before the Senate and direct that the clerk call the roll, and upon the ascertainment that a quorum is present, the Presiding Officer shall, without debate, submit to the Senate by a yea-and-nay vote the question:

    “Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close?” And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn — except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules, in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting — then said measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion of all other business until disposed of.

    Thereafter no Senator shall be entitled to speak in all more than one hour on the measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, the amendments thereto, and motions affecting the same, and it shall be the duty of the Presiding Officer to keep the time of each Senator who speaks. Except by unanimous consent, no amendment shall be proposed after the vote to bring the debate to a close, unless it had been submitted in writing to the Journal Clerk by 1 o’clock p.m. on the day following the filing of the cloture motion if an amendment in the first degree, and unless it had been so submitted at least one hour prior to the beginning of the cloture vote if an amendment in the second degree. No dilatory motion, or dilatory amendment, or amendment not germane shall be in order. Points of order, including questions of relevancy, and appeals from the decision of the Presiding Officer, shall be decided without debate.

    After no more than thirty hours of consideration of the measure, motion, or other matter on which cloture has been invoked, the Senate shall proceed, without any further debate on any question, to vote on the final disposition thereof to the exclusion of all amendments not then actually pending before the Senate at that time and to the exclusion of all motions, except a motion to table, or to reconsider and one quorum call on demand to establish the presence of a quorum (and motions required to establish a quorum) immediately before the final vote begins. The thirty hours may be increased by the adoption of a motion, decided without debate, by a threefifths affirmative vote of the Senators duly chosen and sworn, and any such time thus agreed upon shall be equally divided between and controlled by the Majority and Minority Leaders or their designees. However, only one motion to extend time, specified above, may be made in any one calendar day.

    If, for any reason, a measure or matter is reprinted after cloture has been invoked, amendments which were in order prior to the reprinting of the measure or matter will continue to be in order and may be conformed and reprinted at the request of the amendment’s sponsor. The conforming changes must be limited to lineation and pagination.

    No Senator shall call up more than two amendments until every other Senator shall have had the opportunity to do likewise.

    Notwithstanding other provisions of this rule, a Senator may yield all or part of his one hour to the majority or minority floor managers of the measure, motion, or matter or to the Majority or Minority Leader, but each Senator specified shall not have more than two hours so yielded to him and may in turn yield such time to other Senators.

    Notwithstanding any other provision of this rule, any Senator who has not used or yielded at least ten minutes, is, if he seeks recognition, guaranteed up to ten minutes, inclusive, to speak only.

    After cloture is invoked, the reading of any amendment, including House amendments, shall be dispensed with when the proposed amendment has been identified and has been available in printed form at the desk of the Members for not less than twenty four hours.

  14. Mr. Universe says:

    Okay, mclever wrote everything you need to know about filibusters.

  15. parksie555 says:

    Here’s the real solution to the so-called filibuster issue: Don’t bring forth legislation that is so unpopular that those in the minority feel free to filibuster that legislation with no fear of recourse from the voters of his/her district.

    Make the legislation popular enough with all voters that those who filibuster will be punished for the filibuster in the next cycle.

  16. Monotreme says:

    Let me see if I understand what you’re saying, Parksie. No one in Congress ever brought forth unpopular legislation before the last 10 years?

    Because your hypothesis needs to be supported by the evidence, in this case that the rise in the use of the filibuster has to do with introducing unpopular legislation, and not some other cause.

  17. Number Seven says:

    I think we know what would happen if the Dems abused the filibuster the same way the Reps have.

  18. shiloh says:

    I think we know what would happen if the Dems abused the filibuster the same way the Reps have.

    Indeed, Reps would whine until the cows came home … and then continue to eternity!

    Heck, even as wingers are using the filibuster 24/7 they continue to whine lol

    ‘nuf said! except did I mention Reps are whiners especially winger trolls at 538 …

  19. Pingback: Book Review: “Rubicon” by Tom Holland | What they didn't teach in law school

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s