From Academic Kids

For other uses, see Filibuster (disambiguation).

In a legislature or other decision making body, a filibuster is an attempt to obstruct a particular decision from being taken by using up the time available, typically through an extremely long speech.

The term first came into use in the United States Senate, where senate rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose. The term comes from the early 17th century, where Buccaneers were known in England as filibusters. This term had evolved from the French word flibustier, which was a literal translation from the Dutch vrybuiter (freebooter).

A similar form of parliamentary obstruction practiced in the United States and other countries is called "slow walking". It specifically refers to the extremely slow speed with which legislators walk to the podium to cast their ballots. For example, in South Korea this tactic is known as a "cow walk" [1] ( In general it refers to the intentional delay of the normal business of the legislature [2] (


Filibusters in the U.S. Senate


Under Senate rules, the speech need not be relevant to the topic under discussion, and there have been cases in which a senator has undertaken part of a speech by reading from a telephone directory. Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC) set a record in 1957 by filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes, although the bill ultimately passed. Thurmond broke the previous record of 22 hours and 26 minutes set by Wayne Morse (I-OR) in 1953 protesting the Tidelands Oil legislation.

Preparations for a filibuster can be elaborate. Sometimes cots are brought into the hallways or cloakrooms for senators to sleep on. According to Newsweek, "They used to call it 'taking to the diaper,' a phrase that referred to the preparation undertaken by a prudent senator before an extended filibuster"[3] ( Strom Thurmond visited a steam room before his filibuster in order to dehydrate himself so he could drink without urinating. An aide stood by in the cloakroom with a pail in case of emergency.

Filibusters have become much more common in recent decades. Twice as many filibusters took place in the 1991-1992 legislative session as in the entire nineteenth century. (Frozen Republic, p.198)


In 1789, the First US Senate adopted rules allowing the Senate "to move the previous question," ending debate and proceeding to a vote. In 1806 this rule was eliminated, allowing the filibuster to become an option for delay and blocking of floor votes, since this left no mechanism for terminating debate. In 1917 a rule allowing for the cloture of debate (ending a filibuster) was adopted. From 1917 to 1949, the requirement for cloture was two-thirds of those voting.

In 1946 Southern Democrats blocked a vote on a bill proposed by Dennis Chavez of New Mexico (S. 101) that would have created a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to prevent discrimination in the work place. The filibuster lasted weeks, and Senator Chavez was forced to remove the bill from consideration after a failed cloture vote even though he had enough votes to pass the bill. As civil rights loomed on the Senate agenda, this rule was revised in 1949 to allow cloture on any measure or motion by two-thirds of the entire Senate membership; in 1959 the threshold was restored to two-thirds of those voting. After a series of filibusters in the 1960s over civil rights legislation, the Senate in 1975 revised its cloture rule so that three-fifths of the Senate (usually 60 senators) could limit debate. Despite this rule, the filibuster or the threat of a filibuster remains an important tactic that allows a large minority to affect legislation.

Filibusters do not occur in legislative bodies in which time for debate is strictly limited by procedural rules, such as the United States House of Representatives. The US House did not adopt rules restricting debate until 1842, and the filibuster was used in that body before that time.

In current practice, Senate rules permit procedural filibusters, in which actual continuous floor speeches are not required, although the Senate majority leader may require an actual traditional filibuster if he so chooses. This threat of a filibuster can be just as powerful as an actual filibuster.

Budget bills are governed under special rules called "Reconciliation" which do not allow filibusters. Reconciliation theoretically only applies to bills that would reduce the budget deficit, but it has been used for bills that are only tangentially related to budget issues.

A filibuster can be defeated by the governing party if they leave the debated issue on the agenda indefinitely, without adding anything else to the agenda. Thurmond's attempt to filibuster the Civil Rights Act was defeated when Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson refused to refer any further business to the Senate, which required the filibuster to be kept up indefinitely. Instead, the opponents were all given a chance to speak and the matter eventually was forced to a vote.

The filibuster today

In 2005, some Republican senators led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), responding to the Democratic threat of filibustering some judicial nominees of President George W. Bush to prevent a vote on the nomination, floated the idea of a rules change that would eliminate filibusters on judicial nominees. They originally called this plan the nuclear option, which they later changed to constitutional option. Opponents of the plan continue to use the term nuclear option. The filibuster battle raged on the Senate floor for much of May. Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) furiously opposed the changes, claiming they would erode traditional minority rights in government. The Republicans, however, wanted judicial nominees to have a clear-cut vote – either yes or no.

On May 23, 14 senators – seven Democrats and seven Republicans – led by John McCain (R-AZ) and Robert Byrd (D-WV) brokered a deal to allow three of Bush's nominees a vote on the Senate floor while leaving two others subject to a filibuster. The seven Democrats promised not to filibuster Bush's nominees except under "extraordinary circumstances," while the seven Republicans promised to oppose the nuclear option. In summary, the Democrats promised to stop the filibuster on Priscilla Owen and two other controversial nominees, who had all been filibustered in the Senate before. In return, the Republicans would stop the effort to ban the filibuster for judicial nominees. Two other controversial judicial nominees, picked by president George W Bush, however, are still subject to filibusters.

Filibusters in Canada

A unique form of filibuster was pioneered by the Ontario New Democratic Party in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in April, 1997. To protest Progressive Conservative government legislation that would create the megacity of Toronto, Ontario, the small New Democratic caucus introduced 11,500 amendments to the megacity bill, created on computers with mail merge functionality. A typical NDP amendment would name a street in the proposed city, and provide that public hearings be held into the megacity with residents of the street invited to participate.

The Ontario Liberal Party also joined the filibuster with a smaller series of amendments; a typical Liberal amendment would give an historical designation to a named street. The filibuster occupied the legislature day and night for approximately ten days, members alternating in shifts. On the fifth day, tired and often sleepy government members inadvertently let one of the NDP amendments pass, and residents of Cafon Court in Etobicoke were granted the right to a public consultation on the bill.

Filibusters in entertainment

The 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington climaxes with a young senator named Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, astonished to discover the corruption of his mentor, staging a filibuster to prevent his expulsion from the chamber long enough to expose the corruption.

On the TV show The West Wing, on episode #39 "The Stackhouse Filibuster" (Second Season, aired March 14, 2001), the senator Howard Stackhouse filibusters from a Friday afternoon through a good part of the night [4] (

See also


  • Filibuster: Not Like It Used to Be (, Newsweek, Nov. 24, 2003.
  • The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy. 1997, Daniel Lazare.

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