What Is The Filibuster All About?

The filibuster has been a tool available to U.S. Senators during Senate floor discussions on legislation and appointments since the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have valued the filibuster as a means to bring compromise and bipartisanship to bitter and divisive debates.

The word, filibuster, as it applies to the American political process refers to a political delaying tactic such as a long speech used by politicians to delay or prevent the passage of legislation. The older meaning of filibuster refers to the illegal act of plundering or piracy; of capturing a ship and its cargo and holding it for ransom.

The etymology of the word, filibuster, seems to date back to about 1560-1570 when the English anglicized the Dutch word, vrijbutier, into freebooter. A freebooter is understood to be a person who goes in search of plunder; a pirate, a buccaneer. Shortly thereafter, the French adopted filibustier and the Spanish adopted filibustero to mean the same thing. In the 17th century the English transformed the Spanish word into filibuster to describe the actions of the pirates who attacked the Spanish explorers of the New World. In the 1800's the Americans popularized the word filibuster, referring to the activities of famous pirates operating in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Filibuster as Piracy

From 1830 to 1860 the countries of Cuba, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua were all victims of various filibuster campaigns. The filibusters were led by groups of adventurers who, without the consent of the American Government, but with the aid of private American finance, tried to seize political power in these Latin American and Caribbean countries. Part of the aim of the filibuster campaigns was to empower the population of these countries and bring forth a revolution that would be beneficial to American interests, mainly the slave trade.

Financial support for the filibusters came largely from the southern states where parades of celebration were held in their honor and songs were written about their adventures. Officially, the U.S. did not support the filibuster campaigns because the military was spread too thin to be able to provide adequate enforcement of the laws against the involvement. Many citizens saw the campaigns as an aspect of "manifest destiny," the idea that America had a right to unlimited expansion.

A couple of famous filibusterers include Narciso Lopez and William Walker. Lopez liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule and attempted three times to liberate Cuba. Walker, from Tennessee, annexed parts of Mexico, including Lower California, and declared himself to be president. The U.S. government did not support Walker and eventually brought him to trial.

The era of the Filibuster Movement ended when the U.S. Civil War started. Attention and resources were given to the defense of the North and the South, ending the efforts of the filibuster campaigns.

Filibuster as a Political Tool

During the period from 1840 to 1860, numerous Southern politicians made long speeches during Senate floor debates on legislation bills for the purpose of delaying the bill or preventing a vote on the bill. The word filibuster was borrowed to describe these speeches, which were thought of as piracy of time and opportunity. Henry Clay, in 1841, gave what is considered to be the first filibuster speech.

As the debate over the slavery issue became more important in Congress, southern politicians used the tactic of long dilatory speeches to block all civil rights legislation. The word filibuster became popularized during this pre-Civil War period.

Legislative Rules

The U.S. Constitution did not give direction to the House of Representatives or to the Senate regarding how to conduct everyday business and how to conduct debates on the floor. Each body was expected to create and adopt their own rules.

On day 2 of the first Senate meeting a special committee was created to "prepare a system of rules for conducting business." A few days later, on April 7, 1789, the special committee filed their first rules report and on April 16, 1789, the Senate adopted their first set of rules. The first set contained 19 rules and on April 18 number 20 was adopted. At this point the special committee was disbanded.

The rules committee was recreated on several occasions during succeeding years for the purpose of creating new rules or revising existing rules. Since 1789 there have been 7 adoptions of new or revised rules; in 1806, 1820, 1828, 1877, 1884, and 1979. Some rules have been amended and passed by the Senate without going to a committee. The change to Rule XXII in 1917 to provide for a cloture procedure is a good example. There currently are a total of 43 Standing Rules of the Senate.

The House Rules and Manual of the U.S. House of Representatives does not allow for filibuster speeches. Each Representative is allowed to hold the floor to debate a question for one hour and may only speak once on each question. The House is a large body and the members thought it wise to limit the amount of time that a Representative may speak.

The Senate is an entirely different situation, however.

Senate Rule XIX

Rule XIX is the key rule that provides a structure for debate on the Senate floor. A key provision of the rule states that when a Senator rises to seek recognition during floor debate, he or she is guaranteed a chance to speak on the question for as long as he or she wishes. The presiding officer is not given discretion in this matter and must recognize each Senator in order. During the period of time that a recognized Senator is speaking the question before the Senate cannot come to a vote. The Senator cannot be interrupted or be forced to stop their speech without their consent.

Debate Rule XIX does not limit the number of Senators who may speak on an issue. The rule does, however, limit each Senator to two speeches per legislative day on each issue. During a filibuster period the presiding officer will typically call a recess rather than an adjournment at the end of the calendar day, keeping the legislative day alive when the Senate reconvenes. This tactic effectively limits each Senator to a maximum of two speeches on each issue. It is possible, however, for a Senator to offer an amendment in order to create a new debatable question, on which the Senators may make two more speeches.

A relatively recent provision in Rule XIX, called the "Pastore Rule" in honor of Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island, requires that debate on a question must be germane to the question. During filibuster periods this rule is enforced to prevent Senators from making meaningless, off-topic speeches. During the 1930's through the 1950's several Senators, such as Huey Long and Strom Thurmond made long filibusters which included readings of recipes, the Congressional Record, the Declaration of Independence, and other non-germane topics.

While a Senator is speaking on an issue he or she must remain standing and must speak more or less continuously. During a filibuster-length speech this requirement creates fatigue in the speaker. However, the speaker may yield to a question from another Senator without losing the floor. The other Senator can provide relief by asking a very long question followed by a short answer, followed by more long questions. In this manner a group of Senators can work together to extend the length of a Senator's speaking period.

Senate Rule XXII

The procedures for invoking cloture for purposes of wrapping up the floor debate and bringing the question to a vote are contained in Rule XXII. The process requires a motion that is signed by at least 16 Senators and presented to the presiding officer while the question is being debated. The rule requires that the cloture motion must be seasoned, meaning that it cannot be acted upon until the second day after it is presented.

One hour after the cloture motion has matured on the third day the presiding officer interrupts the Senate proceedings and presents the cloture motion to the Senate for a vote. At this point an automatic roll call vote is required.

In 1975 the Senate voted to change the number of votes needed to invoke cloture to 60% from the previous 67%. A compromise was struck, however, because some Senators feared that if changing the Rule was too easy that the majority needed to invoke cloture might be reduced further in the future. Therefore, the Senate agreed that to make future rule changes, including changing the cloture rule itself, would require the traditional 67% majority vote.

If the motion to invoke cloture is defeated the Senators can reconsider the vote or file a new motion to invoke cloture. For example, in 1988 there were eight cloture motions on a campaign finance reform bill and all eight motions were defeated.

If a motion to invoke cloture is successful, then the effect of invoking cloture only guarantees that a vote on the question will take place eventually, but not immediately. After the successful cloture motion has passed the Senate is said to be working under cloture. Rule XXII imposes a maximum cap of 30 additional hours for debate, quorum calls, parliamentary inquiries, and other proceedings prior to an actual vote on the question. During this cloture period each Senator is entitled to speak for a total of not more than one hour.

Once cloture has been invoked under Rule XXII, the point of a filibuster is largely lost. Without exception, proceedings are wrapped up in less than 30 hours and the question is brought to a vote.


The filibuster speech in the Senate has enjoyed a long tradition and has been used for several purposes. On one hand the filibuster has been used to persuade others of the validity of the minority position on a question. Open and unlimited debate can change minds and sway opinion. The filibuster speech process may help to defeat an issue once a vote is taken.

On the other hand, the filibuster has been used to stall or prevent a vote on an issue. The filibuster speech or the threat of a filibuster may cause the issue to be tabled or withdrawn and not brought to a vote on the floor.

The minority party in the Senate counts on the use of the filibuster as a means to prevent the majority party from wielding too much influence. Such a tool encourages the two major parties in the Senate to work in nonpartisan ways to resolve differences. The filibuster creates a need for compromise. It has been suggested that without the filibuster tool the Senate would be much less productive in producing legislation.

Garry Gamber is a public school teacher. He writes articles about politics, real estate, health and nutrition, and internet dating services. He is a founding member of http://www.GoodPoliticsRadio.com and the owner of http://www.TheDatingAdvisor.com

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