No Labels has been calling for Senate filibuster reform, proposal No. 3 in our Make Congress Work! action plan, and yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally admitted it is time to start fixing the filibuster.

But what’s the backstory to the filibuster, made famous by films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? The filibuster was originally conceived as a way to prevent a Senate majority from steamrolling the minority. In the first 50 years of the filibuster it was used only 35 times, but in recent years its use has skyrocketed — in the last two years alone it was used more than 100 times.

Jimmy Stewart Filibustered the Right Way in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Below is a timeline of the filibuster, along with efforts to reform the Senate procedure, dating back to 1806.

May 10, 2012: Harry Reid publicly backs the original Udall-Merkley-Harkin filibuster reform proposal.

January 24, 2012: President Barack Obama mentions the up-or-down vote in 90 days proposal as a priority of his during the State of the Union Address. This proposal, No. 2 in the No Labels action plan, would require all presidential nominations be confirmed or rejected within 90 days of the nomination being received by the Senate — thereby preventing extended filibusters on the nominees.

December 13, 2011: No Labels unveils its Make Congress Work! action plan, which includes among its proposals an up-or-down vote on all presidential nominees within 90 days, a restoration of the talking filibuster and elimination of filibusters on motions to proceed.

January 2011: Tom Udall (D-NM) Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) propose a reform package for the filibuster rules. This was trumped by a more modest reform package agreed to by Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to limit the number of appointed positions subject to Senate confirmation and the elimination of the secret hold.

Spring 2005: Republicans attempt to remove the filibuster of judicial nominees. The so-called
“Gang of 14” comes to a bipartisan agreement to allow judicial nominees to be filibustered, but for the minority to use more restraint in filibustering.

1975: The threshold for cloture, a vote that can forcibly close debate on a filibuster, is lowered from a 2/3 vote to a 3/5 vote.  

1974: Budget reconciliation is established in part to protect purely budgetary matters from a filibuster.

1959: The cloture requirement is weakened from 2/3 of all sworn-in senators to 2/3 of all senators who are present and voting.

1949: Cloture is expanded to apply to motions to proceed to debate.

1917: After a 23-day filibuster, Pres. Woodrow Wilson convenes a special session of Congress to have them institute a cloture rule to have some way for the Senate to forcibly close debate.

1837: The first filibuster is used as an attempt by members of the Whig party to keep the majority from expunging a resolution of censure against Pres. Andrew Jackson.

1806: The Senate rules’ original “motion for the previous question” is removed from a recodification due to redundancy, giving rise to the potential for unlimited debate, from which the filibuster is derived.

The filibuster was originally intended to protect Senate minority rights, but more recently its intentions have been greatly abused and it’s time for reform.

If you agree it’s time to fix the Senate filibuster, click here to sign-on in support of No Labels’ Make Congress Work! action plan.