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19th Century Filibuster
Using the filibuster to delay or block legislative action has a long history. The term filibuster -- from a Dutch word meaning "pirate" -- became popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill.
In the early years of Congress, representatives as well as senators could filibuster. As the House of Representatives grew in numbers, however, revisions to the House rules limited debate. In the smaller Senate, unlimited debate continued on the grounds that any senator should have the right to speak as long as necessary on any issue.
In 1841, when the Democratic minority hoped to block a bank bill promoted by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, he threatened to change Senate rules to allow the majority to close debate. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton rebuked Clay for trying to stifle the Senate's right to unlimited debate.
Three quarters of a century later, in 1917, senators adopted a rule (Rule 22), at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, that allowed the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote, a device known as "cloture." The new Senate rule was first put to the test in 1919, when the Senate invoked cloture to end a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. Even with the new cloture rule, filibusters remained an effective means to block legislation, since a two-thirds vote is difficult to obtain. Over the next five decades, the Senate occasionally tried to invoke cloture, but usually failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote. Filibusters were particularly useful to Southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching legislation, until cloture was invoked after a 57 day filibuster against the Civil Right Act of 1964. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of the current one hundred senators.
Many Americans are familiar with the filibuster conducted by Jimmy Stewart, playing Senator Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra's film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but there have been some famous filibusters in the real-life Senate as well. During the 1930s, Senator Huey P. Long effectively used the filibuster against bills that he thought favored the rich over the poor. The Louisiana senator frustrated his colleagues while entertaining spectators with his recitations of Shakespeare and his reading of recipes for "pot-likkers." Long once held the Senate floor for 15 hours. The record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina's J. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell just had an heated, lengthy exchange on the floor of the Senate over Reid’s intention to use the so-called “constitutional option” at the beginning of the next Congress to change the rules of the filibuster using only 51 votes.
The specific changes Reid envisions aren’t particularly dramatic: He wants to be able to make the motion to debate a bill — but not the vote to pass it — immune to the filibuster; he wants the time it would take to break a filibuster to be shorter; and he wants whoever is filibustering to have to hold the floor of the Senate and talk.
Nevertheless, McConnell is furious. “What these Democrats have in mind is a fundamental change to the way the Senate operates.” McConnell is referring to the Democrats’ proposal to change Senate rules with 51 votes rather than 67. But his outrage isn’t particularly convincing. As Senate whip, McConnell was a key player in the GOP’s 2005 effort to change the filibuster rules using — you guessed it — 51 votes. As he said at the time, “This is not the first time a minority of Senators has upset a Senate tradition or practice, and the current Senate majority intends to do what the majority in the Senate has often done–use its constitutional authority under article I, section 5, to reform Senate procedure by a simple majority vote.”