What Is a Filibuster?

There's been discussion of a filibuster to prevent the Texas abortion bill and other proposals, but what is a filibuster, and why is it used? Read our blog to find out.

Definition

A filibuster is a tactic used by senators to delay or block a bill before a congressional vote.

When a bill passes through the Senate, it goes through several steps, including:

  • A senator or group of cosigners introduces the bill to the rest of the Senate
  • The bill goes to a designated committee for review
  • The committee revises and amends the bill
  • Committee members vote on the bill
  • If passed, the bill goes to the Senate floor for debate

A bill becomes a law if the majority of the Senate votes in favor. A filibuster usually happens before or during the final vote to stop the bill from passing.

History of the Filibuster

In 1806, senators could debate without interruption unless there was a motion to stop passed by a simple majority until Vice President Aaron Burr pushed them to stop the rule. This gave senators almost unlimited debate rights.

Then, in 1917, the Senate passed Rule XXII, the cloture rule, which breaks a filibuster if the Senate reaches a two-third majority vote. By the 1970s, the Senate reduced the majority vote to 60 votes, which remains today's rule. This was also the birth of the "silent" filibuster which refers to when 41 or more senators threaten a filibuster, so the Senate majority leader refuses to call a vote.

While it may seem like the filibuster is watertight, there are some exceptions. In 2013, the Democratic party changed Senate rules to allow confirmation of executive branch positions to pass with a simple majority. Then, a few years later, the Republican party expanded the rule to include Supreme Court appointments.

Essentially, this means that presidential and vice-presidential appointments and Supreme Court appointments can be confirmed without the opportunity for obstruction (filibuster) by a minority vote. There are also certain kinds of legislation that cannot be filibustered either.

For example, trade agreements and budget bills can't be filibustered. Military matters like arms sales or military base closures cannot be filibustered in the Senate.

To sum up the history of the filibuster:

  • 1806: A filibuster can be broken by a two-thirds vote
  • The 1970s: The "silent" filibuster (the threat of a filibuster to prevent a vote), and the reduction from a majority to 60 senators
  • 2013: Democrats make presidential/vice presidential confirmations filibuster-free,
  • 2017: Republicans expand the rule to include Supreme Court

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

One of the most famous examples of a filibuster is the compelling fictional movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The 1939 film tells the story of Mr. Smith, a small-town Boy Ranger leader (similar to the boy scouts) who is appointed to fill a vacancy in the Senate.

Smith moves from his idyllic hometown to the bustling metropolis of Washington D.C. He attempts to navigate the political system and make a case for "the little guy," only to discover how deep the corruption goes.

During a vote for a corrupt appropriations bill, Smith holds a one-man filibuster for 24 hours by reading word for word from the Constitution. He appeals to his peers by painting a picture of American values to persuade them to shut down a bill that he believes is the antithesis to justice.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a compelling film that shows the power of the filibuster. In reality, few filibusters in American history have gone on for 24 hours with that level of theatricality, but a 2021 filibuster in Texas went on for 15 hours.

This film represents the essence of the filibuster without muddying the waters with political biases. If you haven't already seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it's a fantastic film for the whole family.

Do Filibusters Work?

Filibusters are an effective tool to stop a vote. They are a means to delay or prevent a vote which can diffuse the urgency to pass legislation and discourage voting. However, it's essential to understand that a filibuster is an option available to all senators.

In other words, a filibuster can be used to stop criminal justice reform, tax relief bills, and healthcare reform. This does not mean that filibusters are inherently bad; instead, they are simply a tool.

Takeaway

Filibusters are a tool senators can use to delay or even stop a vote on legislation. There have been many changes to the rule over the years, but the core of the filibuster remains the same.

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