Block That Bill! A History Of The Filibuster

The filibuster has long been part of our political fabric. Early on, both senators and House members had the ability to filibuster, but the word itself didn’t get popular until the mid 1850s. (The word itself is derived from the Dutch word for pirate.) As the House of Representatives expanded, the lower chamber dropped the tactic, but senators have continued to use the parliamentary tactic to prevent votes on bills that they find objectionable. In recent years, as partisan divides have resulted in more and more filibusters, the tactic has been used to block everything from judicial nominations to health care reforms and extending benefits to the unemployed.

Above: Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) filibusters civil rights legislation in 1957. Thurmond, who eventually became a Republican, holds the record for the longest filibuster in American history at 24 hours, 18 minutes.


1841: When Henry Clay proposed a bank bill that angered John C. Calhoun, Calhoun’s rebuttal seemed endless. When Clay tried to change Senate rules to allow a vote, he himself was rebuked by Thomas Hart Benton in defense of the endless debate of the Senate.

Above: John C. Calhoun.


1917: The Senate adopts Bill 22, which allowed for a two-thirds majority vote to end debate, a tactic called forcing cloture, at the behest of President Woodrow Wilson. The Senate would first use the new rule in 1919, when it invoked cloture on debate on the Treaty of Versailles. However, the two-thirds majority threshold to end filibusters made it an effective tool to stop legislation from passing. The rule was later changed to require only 60 senators to invoke cloture.

Above: President Woodrow Wilson.


1917: Three senators opposed to American involvement in World War I filibustered the Armed Ship bill, which would have allowed President Wilson to arm merchant ships. The filibuster was led by Robert La Follette (R-WI). He was already famous for an 18-hour oration in 1908 that earned him the Senate record for longest filibuster.


1935: Sen. Huey Long (D-LA) filibustered a bill that would have allowed his political opponents in Louisiana to gain National Recovery Act appointments. The speech lasted for 15 hours and 30 minutes, during which time Long read the entire text of the Constitution. Long also took the opportunity to criticize FDR, lamenting the idea that the Constitution had become “ancient and forgotten lore” thanks to the New Deal.


1953: In opposition to Tidelands Oil legislation, Sen. Wayne Morse (I-OR) filibustered for 22 hours and 26 minutes. He broke the record of his mentor, Robert La Follette. Ultimately unsuccessful, Morse was battling legislation that would allow Texas to take control over submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico. Once the lands, which were rich in gas and oil, reverted back to Texas, powerful energy interests were able to move in and extract the resources.


1964: Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) spent 14 hours personally filibustering the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a decision he now says he regrets. Byrd did wind up voting for the 1968 Civil Rights Act. (Seventeen years later, Byrd would have a hand in amending a process called reconciliation, a budget measure designed to limit debate on spending bills. The Byrd rule would prohibit the Senate from using of reconciliation on provisions that would increase the deficit beyond 10 years after the measure passed.) He also associated himself with the so-called Gang of 14 in 2005 to limit the use of the filibuster in judicial appointments.

Above: Byrd (right) with President Ronald Reagan and Sen. Bob Dole in 1985.


1994: Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, then a Democrat, joined with Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-IA) to introduce a bill to end the filibuster. But he later reversed himself, and, in 2009, threatened to use the filibuster to block health care reform.


2003: Senators need to sleep, too, and in 2003 federal workers caravanned beds onto the Senate floor to prepare for a possible filibuster on campaign finance reform legislation.


2005: Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), flanked by Sens. Joe Lieberman and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), led an effort to support the Democrats’ use of the filibuster to block the appointment of judicial nominees.


2008: Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threatened to block a bill that would have eased limits on pay discrimination.


2010: Massachusetts residents elect Scott Brown (R) to fill the seat of the late Ted Kennedy. Brown wins the seat by promising to be the 41st Republican vote in the Senate to block health care reform, which barely squeaked by a filibuster with a fragile 60 vote coalition on Christmas Eve. However, Brown hasn’t been a complete party pooper for the Democrats. He, along with four other Republican senators crossed party lines, to invoke cloture on a jobs bill.


2010: Sen. Jim Bunning’s recent effort to block a vote on extending unemployment benefits is just the latest in a long history of Senate obstructionism. Ninety-nine senators had agreed to extend the benefits, which had expired on February 28. Bunning (R-KY) filibustered the extension because they weren’t being paid with stimulus dollars. He took to the Senate floor to complain that he had to miss the Kentucky-South Carolina game to keep the legislation from going forward. Bunning eventually relented from his unpopular filibuster thanks to pressure from his Republican colleagues and a promise of votes from the Democrats.

Lauren V. Burke/