"No matter how paranoid or conspiracy-minded you are, what the government is actually doing is worse than you imagine." - - - William Blum

May 23, 2005

What constitutes a filibuster?

Knowledge News (subscr. only) has a nice simple explanation for novices of what a filibuster is. I reprinted it here:

On Monday, the U.S. Senate braced for a filibuster fight. Unless Republicans and Democrats can reach a last-minute deal, the Senate will likely decide tomorrow whether Democrats, who are in the minority, can continue to filibuster a handful of the president's nominees for federal judgeships.

Both sides say a crucial precedent is at stake. Republicans say the president's judicial nominees deserve an up-or-down vote from the Senate. (By filibustering, the Democrats can prevent such a vote from taking place.) Democrats say the Republicans' effort to stop their filibuster strikes at the heart of America's system of checks and balances. We say it's time to learn more about filibusters.

The Ultimate Filibuster

Imagine you're a United States senator. (For political junkies, this may not be the first time.) You're absolutely desperate to stop a proposed piece of legislation. But when you tally the vote pledges, you realize that you don't have enough allies to defeat the bill. You have only one option: stall, and then stall some more.

That's the idea behind the filibuster, an age-old tactic that allows senators to use parliamentary procedure to wear down their opponents. We usually think of a filibuster as a long speech by a single senator, but the term actually covers all kinds of delaying tactics, such as offering pointless amendments and then requiring a roll-call vote. (That usually kills half an hour.)

Filibusters occur for one simple reason: there's no rule preventing them. Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate's rules do not limit how long a senator may speak about the issue up for discussion, nor do they limit how many senators may speak on any one issue. Once a senator has been recognized by the presiding officer and "has the floor," that lawmaker can talk until the cows come home.

Usually, senators in the minority party filibuster together. That way, they can take turns speaking. But even one senator can hold his colleagues hostage for a long while. When Strom Thurmond had something to say about a civil rights bill in 1957, he said it for 24 hours and 18 minutes.

From the Beginning

The Constitution doesn't mention filibusters, but parliamentary delaying tactics have plenty of precedent, having been used since the first session of Congress. In fact, the idea goes back 2,000 years--to the Roman senate, where senators like Cato tried to manipulate the system with lengthy speeches.

By the 1860s, delaying a bill with speeches or other tactics had been tagged with the "filibuster" label. The word originally meant something like "looter" or "pirate," so it's pretty clear that critics wanted to imply that obstructionist senators were stealing their victories by clogging up the Senate's schedule.

In 1893, delaying tactics caused one piece of legislation to occupy the chamber for more than eight weeks. During that filibuster, the Senate generally recessed for the evening, but one of the ways the majority party can try to break the filibuster is to require a continuous sitting of the Senate. That means that the speeches have to go on round-the-clock, like Jimmy Stewart's famous address to the Senate in the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The speeches nowadays tend to be about the legislation at hand, but for most of the Senate's history nothing required the lawmaker who had the floor to even pretend to discuss the relevant legislation. In 1935, Huey Long famously spent some of his 15-and-a-half-hour filibuster describing how to cook some of his favorite foods. The next year, a West Virginia lawmaker read aloud from Aesop's fables.

They Need Cloture

Only since 1917 has there been a way to cut off the senator who has the floor. A rule adopted that year allows the Senate to invoke "cloture" (a variant of the more common "closure"). But even that is time-consuming and complicated. First, 16 senators have to get together and present a motion to end the debate. Then, 60 senators have to come to the floor to cast "aye" votes.

Even if the motion passes, it doesn't immediately end the debate--it simply puts a limit of 30 hours on how much longer the Senate can spend on the issue. And there's a special rule that says that the whole Senate cannot vote on a cloture motion until two days after it's first proposed. So it's easy to see how the Senate could lose a week of work during a filibuster, even after invoking cloture.

In the current case, a cloture vote is set to occur on Tuesday. But that's not the end of the story. If that vote fails, many expect Republican leaders to make what's called a "point of order" to limit debate on judicial nominees. Essentially, the Republican majority could then use the Senate's procedural rules to end the filibuster. Democrats have promised to respond, if that happens, by exploiting more procedural rules to tie the entire Senate in knots. In a sense, that would amount to the ultimate filibuster.

Colleen Kelly
May 23, 2005

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