Five Facts on the Filibuster

Five Facts on the Filibuster

The filibuster is a legislative tool that allows a single U.S. senator to hold the Senate floor in order to slow or block a vote on a bill. Under current Senate rules, it can be “broken” only by a vote of 60 or more senators. Recently, Sens. Thom Tillis and James Lankford both came out in defense of the filibuster amid reports former President Trump may push for its elimination if he is reelected president.

Here are Five Facts on the filibuster.

1. The filibuster was made possible by an 1806 change to Senate rules.

Until 1806, a Senate rule allowed a simple majority to end debate on a bill and move to a vote. But a small change to the rules unintentionally created the possibility that a single senator could stop passage of legislation by refusing to yield the floor and preventing unanimous consent to proceed to a vote. The first time the filibuster was deliberately used was in 1837.

According to the Senate Historical Office, the term itself comes from a Dutch word for “freebooter” and the Spanish “filibusteros” to describe the pirates rampaging across the Caribbean at the time. The term had become a part of the political lexicon by the 1850s.

2. The five longest filibusters in history lasted a combined 104 hours and 49 minutes.

Viewers could be forgiven for thinking the famous 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which features Jimmy Stewart’s Senator Jefferson Smith filibustering for 25 hours, depicts a senator with an unrealistic amount of stamina. But the longest actual filibuster, delivered by North Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1957, ran for 24 hours and 18 minutes – unfortunately, the motivation for that filibuster was to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a bill which ultimately ended up passing later that year.

Senators filibustering have given lengthy diatribes on a wide variety of topics to kill time, from sharing oyster recipes to reading Dr. Seuss.

3. In 2017, a bipartisan group of over 60 senators signed a letter to Senate Leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell asking them to preserve the filibuster.

In the letter, the senators emphasized the importance of preserving their ability to engage in extended debate on the Senate floor. They wrote in part, “We are mindful of the unique role the Senate plays in the legislative process, and we are steadfastly committed to ensuring that this great American institution continues to serve as the world’s greatest deliberative body.” The signatories included 28 Republicans, 32 Democrats, and one independent, many of whom are still serving in the Senate today.

4. The rules governing the filibuster have been amended several times.

Although filibusters had existed from the early 1800s, it wasn’t until 1917 when the Senate adopted a rule to allow two-thirds of Senators to vote for cloture, the procedure used to bring debate to a close. Cloture could end any filibuster and advance a piece of legislation for final passage. This was first used to end a filibuster against ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. The threshold for cloture was further lowered to 60 votes in 1975. More recently, Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle advanced their own rules changes which now allow a simple majority of senators to end debate on nominations – including judicial nominations – granting the majority power much more leeway to unilaterally approve or block presidential appointments under consideration.

5. The use of “silent filibusters” has increased in recent years.

With a few notable exceptions, today, the “standing filibuster” has largely been replaced by the “silent filibuster,” where a senator signals their intention to block a bill without speaking on the floor, often leading the Majority Leader to avoid bringing the bill to a vote unless they can secure 60 votes for cloture. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, this results in a situation where “anytime a group of 41 or more senators simply threatens a filibuster, the Senate majority leader can refuse to call a vote.”