What’s a Filibuster? Ask the United States Senate

Ask The United States Senate

The record has been noted. Ask the experts. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21 hour, 19 minute occupation of the United States Senate floor this week was not a true filibuster.  His rambling talk did not halt any proceedings, and he had a definite time restriction. These two characteristics are what classify his address to the senate as simply a very long speech.

That does not stop the word “filibuster” from being commonly used to describe this event. Cruz had a point to make, and his extraordinarily long speech focused attention on his disapproval of President Obama’s health care law.

Cruz said he would speak “until I am no longer able to stand.”

Today the question is asked, “What is a true filibuster?”

Historically, the United States Senate has been dealing with the proceedings-halting phenomenon for over 150 years.

According to the United States Senate, a filibuster falls under the category of Senate powers and procedures.

“Filibuster” finds its roots from the Dutch. It means having pirate or rebel-like behavior.

In the 1800’s, representatives as well as senators could filibuster.

As the House of Representatives grew, their power to filibuster was taken away.  The sheer numbers of representatives dictated that filibustering was impractical and disruptive.

The smaller Senate kept its filibustering power, as it does today. A senator may take all the time he or she needs to speak.

Filibusters can continue for days or weeks if a group of senators are trying to block a bill.

In 1917, senators adopted Rule 22 to end a debate with a majority vote.  This device is known as “cloture.” Since 1975, a three-fifth majority vote is required to invoke cloture.

The power to filibuster is a part of the United State Senate’s history and tradition. A senator simply needs to ask for the floor, and the talking begins.

Senator Huey P. Long used the filibuster as a tool to prevent votes against the disadvantaged and the poor.  A 15 hour speech was not uncommon for Long, who would include verses of Shakespeare in his recitation.

Senator Strom Thurmond filibustered for over 24 hours against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

More recently, an 11 hour filibuster staged by Texas Senator Wendy Davis failed to stop a bill that limited access to abortion in the state. Also this year, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul spoke for 13 hours.

One of the most famous filibusters is actually fiction.

Jimmy Stewart, who portrayed Senator Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, filibustered a dam construction bill in an attempt to save a boy’s camp.

How could have Sen. Cruz’s almost day-long talk become a true filibuster?

It seems that all of the Republican senators – 41 of them – would have had to join Sen. Cruz’s crusade.  Even then, all of the “filibuster” requirements might not have been met.

What was the impression of Sen. Cruz’s faux filibuster? Ask United States Senator Harry Reid, who tweeted, “With all due respect to Sen. Cruz, I’m not sure we learned anything new. It’s been interesting, but it’s also been a big waste of time.”


By Jennifer Knickman

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