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History of the Filibuster

Video on the history of the filibuster! Discover the fascinating story of the filibuster, from Cato the Younger to Rand Paul.

On March 6, 2013 Senator Rand Paul began a filibuster of the appointment of John Brennan as head of the CIA. He did this to try to get a clear statement from the White House that they will not use drones to unconstitutionally kill Americans in the United States suspected of terrorism.

Paul continued for 12 hours 52 minutes from help from several other Senators, making headlines across the nation. Soon after Paul finished Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter saying the White House would not use drones to kill Americans not engaged in combat. Senator Paul’s nearly 13 hour speech is impressive, but there have been other occasions when Senators have spoken even longer on the issues they have seen as extremely important.

The term filibuster comes from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, meaning pirate or robber, which word is also the root of freebooter. It was used to refer to William Walker, who led a group of Americans to Nicaragua in 1855 to aid in a revolt to overthrow the government. For a time he was successful and was able to take leadership of the nation, but his regime was ended when he was attacked by surrounding nations. The term in its legislative sense was first used by Congressman Albert Brown of Mississippi in 1853, referring to Abraham Watkins Venable’s speech against “filibustering” intervention in Cuba.

Although the term has only been used since the 19th century, the practice was used only before. In the time of the Romans it was used most famously by Cato the Younger in his opposition to Julius Caesar. The rules in the Roman Senate were that all proceedings had to be ended before nightfall, so Cato simply talked until sunset, and the bill could not pass that day.

Filibusters do take place in the British Parliament, but they are not nearly as long winded. The record longest speech in the House of Commons is six hours, set by Henry Brougham in 1828. However, this was not even a filibuster. Filibusters were used most commonly against the Irish Coercion Acts by those who were trying to get independence for Ireland. They were able to delay the passage of the bills for years. The 21st century record was set in 2005 by Andrew Dismore, who spoke for three hours and 17 minutes.

There are two types of filibusters in the U.S. Senate today. Most common one is called a silent filibuster. At the beginning of the nation both the House and Senate allowed the debate to be ended by a previous question motion, which could be passed by a simple majority. However, it seems as though this was not normally used to stifle debate. In the Senate this rule was dropped in 1806 when Aaron Burr, Vice-President of the United States said it was redundant. This accidentally opened the door for Senators to continue to talk as long as they could to delay the bill from passing. In 1917, Senate Rule 22 was added, allowing debates to be limited when a Cloture Motion is passed with a 3/5 majority. This means that as long as a third of the Senators do not want a bill to come to the floor, they can block it by continuing to speak and refusing to vote or a Colture Motion. Today, it is a silent filibuster because the Senators do not even have to talk at all, because if a third of them threaten a filibuster the Senate moves on to other business knowing they will never be able to finish the debate. This means that now important votes require 3/5 of the votes to pass rather than just a majority because they can not close debate. These filibusters have increased in recent years, and the record number of cloture votes was in 2008. In fact, while Rand Paul was speaking on the Senate floor, Republicans were participating in a silent filibuster of appointment of Caitlin Halligan to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a filibuster that has been going on and off since 2010. There have been vacancies on the court since 2005.

Rand Paul’s filibuster was of the second kind, called a “talking filibuster.” If a third of Senators will not join in refusing to close debate, one member can continue speaking as long as he can, refusing to yield the floor to allow the bill to proceed. But the rules don’t make it easy for them. They can not take any breaks from speaking, and can not even sit down. They can take questions without yielding the floor, allowing their fellow Senators to give them a break with very long winded questions. However, the Senator conducting the filibuster is still not allowed to leave the room. These rules have led to some very dramatic events through the history of the Senate.

In the 1930s Louisiana Democrat Huey Long filibustered several bills. In arguing against a bill he believed was unfair to the poor he recited recipes for salad dressing and discussed at length the best way to fry oysters. His most famous filibuster was on June 12, 1935, used against a bill that would give jobs under the National Recovery Act to his political opponents. He was able to speak without stop for 15 hours and 30 minutes. Running out of things to say about the bill, he offered to give advice on any subject someone requested. No other Senators would give him anything to talk about, but people in the galleries sent down notes giving him more topics to speak on.

In 1953, Independent Wayne Morse of Oregon set a new record by filibustering for 22 hours and 26 minutes against the Tidelands Oil legislation.

Senator Strom Thurmond broke this record in three years later by filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes, a record which remains unbroken to this day. Thurmond from South Carolina and the bill that he was opposing was designed to prevent discrimination against black voters in the south by prohibiting intimidating anyone on voting issues. The Southern Democrats had agreed not to filibuster the bill, but Thurmond decided to do it on his own. He came prepared, bringing food, water and lozenges with him. He had also spent time in a sauna dehydrating himself so he wouldn’t have to use the bathroom. His 24 hour speech included reading aloud the voting laws of each US state George Washington’s Farewell Address, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Cots were brought in from a hotel so that the other Senators could sleep without leaving the chamber. He was given a break about four hours in by Barry Goldwater. Goldwater asked him how long he could continue without using the restroom, and Thurmond said only about another hour. Goldwater gave him the opportunity to slip out by moving for something to be read to the Congressional Record without Thurmond yielding the floor. Technically by leaving the room he would have lost the floor but the technicality was ignored, as also hen he sat down for a time and left the room to quickly eat a sandwich in the cloakroom. In the middle of his speech he allowed the majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, to conduct minor Senate business, including swearing in a new Senator, all while Thurmond still technically held the floor.

Thurmond drew laughs at the end of his speech when he said, “Mr. President, I urge every Member of this body to consider this bill most carefully. I hope the Senate will see fit to kill it. I expect to vote against the bill.” The bill would eventually pass, and Thurmond was just a the beginning of a long career in the Senate. He would serve for 48 years, and when he left the Senate 2003 he was the longest-serving Senator in the body’s history, and the only one to serve pass 100.

The House of Representatives does not have the filibuster. They did until 1842, when debate was limited as the number of members was growing. The minority then switched to the disappearing quorum tactic, where they would refuse to answer the role call, forcing the House to adjourn as they had less than a quorum. The practice was ended on January 29, 1890, by Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed. 163 Democrats had refused to vote on a bill to decide a contested West Virginia election. But in doing the role call Reed directed the Clerk to record all those in the chamber even if they didn’t answer. The House immediately erupted in uproar, the Democrats rushed for the doors to escape the room but found them locked. They all shouted for recognition, calling Reed a Czar and a tyranny. They tried to hide under their desks so they could not be seen, but all to no avail. After several more days of wrangling the bill was passed, and the rules were amended to outlaw the disappearing quorum.

It makes Constitutional sense for the Senate to have the filibuster, but not the House. In original Constitution the Senate represented the states, and the House the people. The Senate was intended to be a more deliberative body, and the members had six year terms rather than two. They also have to be 30, rather than 25 in the House, and have to have been a citizen for longer.

Most famous filibuster didn’t even occur it in the Senate. It was in the in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Junior Senator Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, talks for 24 hours against the corruption in the Senate which was about to get him expelled.

Some see the talking filibuster as a waste, as a useless obstruction of the Senate to prevent it from getting real work done. However, this is far from true. The filibuster is important because it gives the opportunity for one man to make his case heard. The ultimate goal in a filibuster is not to prevent the bill from passing, a dozen hours one way or another normally will not make much of a different. The purpose of a filibuster is for one Senator to bring his argument before his colleagues and the nation by making a dramatic stand and saying that this issue is so important that he is willing to stand on the floor of the Senate for hours to make his argument heard.

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