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What is a Filibuster?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The idea of a filibuster is most closely associated with the United States Senate, which has perhaps turned the practice into an art form. Filibusters also have been used in other legislatures around the world, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, with varying rules of decorum but with the same goal: stalling a vote. A filibuster is an obstructionist tactic which is used to prevent the passage of a motion, such as a bill. Within the US Senate, a filibuster usually takes the form of an extended speech, as the Senate offers the right of unlimited discussion and debate to Senators. Senators are also not restricted to the topic at hand, and famous filibusters have included readings from phone books, recitations of poetry, and discussions of Southern recipes.

The roots of the word are almost as fascinating as the practice itself. "Filibuster" is related to a Dutch word, vrijbuiter, which means "pirate." The Dutch word may actually come from "free booter," an English term for a pirate. In the 1800s, Americans filibustered extensively in the Caribbean and South America, attempting to seize political power and material goods. The term was adopted to talk about legislators who "pirated" the spirit of debate in Congress.

In the US, the rules for filibusters differ between the House and the Senate. In the House, rules were established in 1842 that limited the length of time a debate could continue, effectively ending filibusters in the House, as a filibuster basically is an endless debate by definition. In the Senate, the rules allow any representative or a group of representatives to speak as long as they want to about anything until 60 of 100 members on the floor invoke "cloture," which is a majority vote that forces an end to the discussion.

In most cases, a group of Senators creates a filibustering tag team, allowing one Senator to take over the floor when the first one tires. Preparations for a filibuster can be intense, and may include things like cots in the hallway of the Senate. One of the most famous filibustering Senators was Huey Long, who fought to protect the rights of the poor. The record for the longest filibuster, however, goes to Senator Strom Thurmond, who held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes in opposition against the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

While a filibuster can sometimes be entertaining from the outside, it is very serious business within the Senate. Political parties have been known to threaten filibuster over controversial legislation or Executive appointments, because they are fully aware that a prolonged filibuster will cause the Senate's daily business to grind to a halt. The decision to lead a filibuster is not taken lightly, and the Senate will usually compromise to avoid one.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon302706 — On Nov 11, 2012

I had two cancer surgeries and couldn't get insurance coverage since I had lost my job six months before and therefore the company had canceled my insurance rights. Couldn't afford Cobra and was told by five different insurance companies to get a job! Now, with Obama Care, I got insurance in five minutes! No pre-existing conditions!

By DHa8873100 — On Jul 30, 2012

I agree 100 percent with you anon279900.

By DHa8873100 — On Jul 30, 2012

Just to refresh your memory, cupcake: the Repubs are constantly adding bits and pieces to bills in order to sneak them through. Take the farm bill. Te Repubs tacked on a bit that would allow companies to hide the fact that they use genetically altered food in their products by not requiring them to label food packaging that contains GM products. So both parties are responsible.

By anon279900 — On Jul 15, 2012

The republicans have done nothing but hold America hostage just to defeat Obama, and the filibuster is one of their favorite weapons. The health care bill has provided insurance to millions of Americans who would not have it otherwise and it will eventually provide it to millions more. It reigns in the ridiculous rate increases and guarantees Americans can't be dropped when they get sick. It's one of the best things to come out of D.C. since the Constitution.

Harry Reid wants to change the rules because the filibuster should never have even been an option in the first place. We pay our senators damn good money to pass laws, and reading from a phone book for hours on end just to get their way isn't getting us our money's worth.

You want to talk about changing things when it's not convenient for you? Do any of you realize that until June 2009 (maybe even later) that the individual mandate was a Republican concept? Obama was against it in the beginning. But as soon as he decided to adopt it, every idiot republican in Washington started acting like it was a sin against God -- like they never agreed with it. Even Romney enforced the mandate in Michigan.

What's wrong with some people? Can't they see what they're doing? They're bringing the entire country down just to protect their precious billionaires. they don't give a damn about other people or their vote. All they care about is the wealthy scum who pays for their agenda.

And you want to talk about rights: what about this vaginal ultrasound in VA, or the ban on gay marriage, or the voter suppression going on all over the country? Democrats will fight to protect your rights from Republicans and their tyrannical reign of greed for the corporations of America, not the other way around.

Over the last 30 years the top wage earners have seen their salaries increase by 300 percent while the bottom 98 percent stayed totally flat. Isn't that enough to make people see that voting in Republicans is what has ruined our economy? They are the ones to blame for this mess, not Obama, and not the Democrats.

By comfyshoes — On Feb 03, 2011

Sunny27 -I am so glad about that. What I find interesting is how Harry Reid now wants to eliminate the filibuster because it is not convenient to his party. Democracy is supposed to work both ways, not when it is beneficial to you.

By Sunny27 — On Feb 01, 2011

Cupcake15 -I think that the Republicans tried to filibuster the health care bill but after a few days the votes were inevitable.

The filibuster did shed some light on some of the aspects of the bill that Americans did not know about. For example, Representative Tom Coburn, a doctor held a filibuster and made the Democrats defend a clause in the bill that offered the prescription drug Viagra to sex offenders.

There was a lot of embarrassment placed on the Democrats but unfortunately the bill was passed against the will of the American people.

That is why the congressional elections saw the greatest shift of power in over sixty years.

By cupcake15 — On Jan 29, 2011

Mutsy - I could not agree with you more. There were things in this bill that had nothing to do with healthcare. For example, there was a clause in the bill with respect to financial aid and the nationalization of student loans. What does that have to do with health care?

I really hope the the Republicans put up a vote to repeal the health care bill every day. That way the Democrats will be forced to support it or reject it.

The ones that want to get reelected will side with the Republicans which leaves Obama to defend the bill himself.

I think that the American people would welcome a filibuster from the Republicans because there have been too many bills passed too quickly that we are slowly finding out their true impact.

By mutsy — On Jan 28, 2011

I think that the filibuster is an important congressional tool to slow down legislation that needs further debate.

I truly wish we would have seen more Republicans filibuster the majority of Obama’a bills. I mean to have the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi referred to the socialized health care bill by saying that “We have to pass the bill to find out what is in it” is ridiculous.

Furthermore, most of the members of congress that voted for the bill did not even read the bill which is really a disservice to the American people. A filibuster would have allowed continuous debate but it also would have shed light on how horrendous this bill was which is why the Democrats rushed the passage of it in the first place.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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