The Filibuster

Summary

The filibuster has been a hot topic of debate in recent years. While there have been no votes on the issue, there have been a couple pieces of legislation introduced that sought to change Senate rules regarding the filibuster. If a Senator or Congressman comments on the matter, it will appear under their profile. This tab briefly explains the filibuster.

 

History

The filibuster is widely viewed as one of the Senate’s most distinctive procedural features. Today, the term is most often used to refer to Senators holding the floor in extended debate. More generally, however, “filibustering” includes any tactics aimed at blocking a measure by preventing it from coming to a vote. Filibustering is not a rule or a specific procedure. As a consequence, the Senate has no specific “rules for filibustering.” Instead, possibilities for filibustering exist because Senate Rules deliberately lack provisions that would place specific limits on Senators’ rights and opportunities in the legislative process. In particular, those Rules establish no generally applicable limits on the length of debate, nor any motions by which a majority could vote to bring a debate to an end.

The only Senate Rule that permits the body, by vote, to bring consideration of a matter to an end is paragraph 2 of Rule XXII, known as the “cloture rule.” The rule was put in place in 1917, at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson. The Senate rule was first put to the test in 1919, when the Senate invoked cloture to end a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. Sixteen Senators initiate the process by presenting a motion to end the debate. The Senate does not vote on this cloture motion until the second day after the motion is made. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required to invoke cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of the current one hundred senators.  Invoking cloture on a proposal to amend the Senate’s standing rules requires the support of two-thirds of the Senators present and voting. 

The primary effect of invoking cloture on a question is to impose a maximum of 30 additional hours for considering that question. This 30-hour period for consideration encompasses all time consumed by rollcall votes, quorum calls, and other actions, as well as the time used for debate. During this 30-hour period, each Senator may speak for no more than one hour apiece (although several Senators can have additional time yielded to them). Under cloture, the only amendments that Senators can offer are amendments that are germane and that were submitted in writing before the cloture vote took place. The presiding officer also enjoys certain additional powers under cloture: for example, to count to determine whether a quorum is present, and to rule amendments, motions, and other actions out of order on the grounds that they are dilatory.

The time limit of 30 hours imposed by a cloture and the restrictions it places on certain other potentially dilatory procedures has led to an increased use of the tool to overcome filibusters being conducted not only by debate, but through various other delaying tactics. For this reason, the filibuster and the cloture motion are not always as closely linked in practice as they are in popular conception. Even when opponents of a measure resort to extended debate or other tactics of delay, supporters may not decide to seek cloture (although this situation seems to have been more common in earlier decades than today). In recent times, conversely, the Senate leadership has increasingly utilized cloture as a routine tool to manage the flow of business, even in the absence of any apparent filibuster.

For these reasons, the presence or absence of cloture attempts cannot be taken as a reliable guide to the presence or absence of a filibuster. Inasmuch as filibustering does not depend on the use of any specific rules, whether a filibuster is present is always a matter of judgment. 

 

Number of Cloture Votes

Even though the Senate's own web site and numerous other places note that the presence of a cloture vote does not indicate a filibuster, and the lack of a cloture vote does not indicate the lack of a filibuster, many representatives cite the number of cloture votes. For factual reference, the number of cloture votes taken by the Senate per year is shown below.

  

Additional Legislation

Each year, there are numerous bills introduced that are not voted on in the House or Senate. These bills may be sponsored by numerous people and a representative's co-sponsorship of that legislation gives insight into that person's viewpoints.

Senate Bills on The Filibuster
SessionBill NumberCo-SponsorsBill Title
112S Res 130A bill to require a two-fifths threshold to sustain a filibuster
112S Res 122A resolution to amend the Standing Rules of the Senate to reform the filibuster rules to improve the daily process of the Senate.

[1] Website: US Senate Article: Filibuster and Cloture Author: US Senate Accessed on: 04/13/2011

[2] Website: US Senate Article: Report for Congress - Filibusters and Cloture in the Senate Author: Richard S. Beth, Stanley Bach Accessed on: 04/13/2011