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What Is the Senate Filibuster? Its Origins and How It Could Be Eliminated

Paul studied Political Philosophy at Leicester University and is passionate about current affairs. He's lived in Florida for over 10 years.

For information on what is  the filibuster,  what are its origins, and how can it be eliminated, please read on...

For information on what is the filibuster, what are its origins, and how can it be eliminated, please read on...

The filibuster in the U.S. Senate has attracted a lot of attention in recent times. Once employed only sparingly, it is now regularly used to delay or scupper proposed legislation in an increasingly polarized political environment.

The defenders of the filibuster assert that it safeguards the rights of the minority party and stimulates co-operation and compromise. Critics complain that it undermines majority rule in a politically unhealthy way and produces gridlock. Both sides argue that their stance is supported by history, and often invoke (wrongly) the U.S. Constitution.

This article aims to provide the reader with all the essential facts concerning the filibuster, and includes sections on the following:

  • What is the US Senate filibuster?
  • How did the filibuster originate?
  • How can the filibuster be eliminated?
  • Filibuster FAQs

What Is the US Senate Filibuster?

The filibuster is a political procedure aimed at obstruction, where one or more members of the US Senate debate over a proposed piece of legislation with the intention of delaying or preventing a decision being made on the proposal. The procedure is usually carried out by the minority party and when successful, effectively operates as a form of veto.

The majority of legislation in the US Senate needs just a simple majority to win approval in the Senate, usually 51 votes. However, to close out a debate over a piece of legislation, there is a higher threshold: three-fifths of members present need to vote to end it, essentially 60 senators.

In government, a procedure for ending a debate and taking a vote in a legislative assembly is known as cloture. Failure to achieve enough votes for cloture means that a senator is able to refuse to yield the floor in a debate. Alternatively, the senator can prevent the debate from ending by introducing irrelevant parliamentary motions.

If the debate does not finish, then the proposed legislation is defeated.

How Did the Filibuster Originate?

Filibusters have been around for a long time and go all the way back to Ancient Rome. Historians believe that Cato the Younger was the first to exploit the fact that there were no limits on how long members could speak in the Roman senate in order to obstruct proposed changes to legislation.

The US Senate filibuster first became theoretically possible in 1806, following Senate rule changes. However, it wasn't actually used in practice until 1837, when members of the Whig party attempted (and failed) to filibuster a proposal made by supporters of Democratic President Andrew Jackson.

For the following 200 years filibusters were barely used. However, after a series of filibusters in the 1960s over civil rights legislation, rule changes were made in the 1970s which effectively strengthened the procedure. Since then, filibustering, or the threat of it, has become increasingly common. So much so, that in recent decades all pieces of major legislation, aside from budgets, effectively require 60% of votes to pass.

How Can the Filibuster Be Eliminated?

According to current Senate rules, any changes or limitation to the filibuster would be a rule change and therefore could itself be filibustered. This would mean that the vote would require the support of 2/3 of senators present and voting (not the usual 3/5 of those sworn) for the filibuster to be broken.

However, there is a way to bypass the rules. Senate precedents mean that the decisions of the chair can be overruled by a simple majority. This approach is known as the constitutional option by proponents, and the nuclear option by opponents.

Filibuster FAQs

Where does the word "filibuster" come from?

The word filibuster originally meant "pirate" and likely evolved out of the Dutch word "vrijbueter" (now vrijbuiter), which means freebooter. The word "filibuster" was used to in the late 1700s to describe the buccaneers who operated in the West Indies.

In the later half of the 19th century, the verb version came to be used to describe the obstructive tactics used to disrupt or sabotage US legislative proceedings, presumably because practitioners hijacked the debate and upset the usual order of authority, i.e. "pirated" the proceedings.

What does the US Constitution say about the filibuster?

The filibuster is not directly addressed by the US Constitution. The framers wanted to let lawmakers set their own rules on how to govern their chambers.

However, the idea of giving a minority party the power to disrupt the progress of legislation was not popular with Alexander Hamilton, who called the minority veto “a poison” in the Federalist Papers.

Can a Supreme Court nominee be filibustered?

For many years, it was possible for Supreme Court nominees to be filibustered, and it would take 60 votes to end it. However, in April 2017 Senate Republicans invoked the "nuclear option" during Neil Gorsuch's nomination process. This means that nowadays only 51 votes are needed by Supreme Court nominees.

© 2021 Paul Goodman

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