Understanding the Filibuster

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

There is likely to be a great deal of talk about the filibuster in the coming weeks. The folks over at big government have laid out some myths and facts about the filibuster that is worth your time to read. As with all things, your best bet is to inform yourself. The one thing that gets proven to us over and over again is that the old saying about how to tell when a politician is lying is as true today as ever (For those who don’t know the punchline, it is when their lips are moving.)

The filibuster has been used by all stripes of politicians.  However, it is used by minority view representatives to effect bills and legislation they disagree with. Efforts to limit the filibuster have historically been by those who want to silence opposition. Here are a few instances when the filibuster was used or when some forces attempted to limit it:

  • In 1917, a rule for allowing an end to filibusters was embraced by the Democratic Senate. The reason? Woodrow Wilson need to silence 12 anti-war Senators who were trying to kill a bill that would allow Wilson to arm merchant vessels that would likely face German submarines.
  • In the 1930’s, Huey Long used the filibuster to stop any legislation that he felt favored the rich over the poor. Huey Long once held the Senate in filibuster for 15 hours as he read Shakespeare and his favorite recipes.
  • In 1946, a group of southern Senators attempted to block a vote on the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC).
  • In 1953, Senator Wayne Morse filibustered for a record 22 hours and 26 minutes in his attempt to fight the Tidelands Oil legislation.
  • In 1957, a new record was set by Senator Strom Thurmond by filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes.
  • Democratic Senators filibustered for 75 hours to block passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This included a 14 hour 13 minute speech by Senator Robert Byrd. This filibuster was ended when the Senate invoked cloture for on the second time since 1927.

Efforts to limit the filibuster have included a two thirds cloture vote to end the filibuster.  Another tactic that was introduced in the early 1970’s was the “two-track system” where the senate can have two or more pieces of legislation pending on the floor and simply designate certain times of the day for each matter. This required the agreement of the majority leader with unanimous consent or the agreement of the minority leader.

In 1975, the Democrat controlled Senate revised the cloture rule so that three-fifths (remember, old cloture was two thirds or 66 Senators) of the sworn Senators (usually 60) could limit debate.The only exception is when Senate rules are being voted on – where the two-thirds requirement for cloture remains in effect.

Hollywood Lied To You

Now I love “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”. I would suspect that most folks learned what they know about the filibuster from that movie. However, the reality is quite different. Most people are not aware of cloture – either the older style two-thirds or the more modern three-fifths variety that allows the filibuster to be stopped by the members of the Senate. Once cloture is achieved, further debate is limited to 30 more hours.

While all of this is very interesting and you can learn a great deal about the filibuster from wikipedia, I cannot help but think that there are far more pressing issues that the Senate should take on first. For every minute the media wastes on this topic, take a minute to ponder what important issues are not being covered and seek them out for yourself.

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