What’s the Deal With the Filibuster?

What's the Deal With the Filibuster?

(FeaturedNews.com) – Discussions and debates about filibusters and their place in the US Senate have ebbed and surged almost from its inception. Proponents for and against the filibuster each have distinct arguments, and sometimes the viewpoints change with Senate power dynamics.

To understand the filibuster and develop an opinion on its use, let’s take a closer look at when it started, how it’s been used, and how it’s changed.


The US Senate defines filibuster as an action used by senators to extend debate over a topic or prevent voting on a controversial issue. It’s usually a tool the minority party uses to prevent the majority party from steamrolling through legislation and passing partisan bills.

Some people allude to this tactic as “talking a bill to death.” It’s been around since Congress’ first session, gaining its name from Dutch and Spanish roots for piracy because those endlessly debating legislation commandeered time and energy from other issues to subvert or table votes. The term filibuster finally came into more common use around the 1850s, before the Civil War.

Reasons for Its Use

Our ability to discuss and debate topics is a key characteristic of the Senate. It’s why the Founding Fathers originally required a two-thirds majority of senators, referred to as a supermajority, to pass a bill. Nowhere in the Constitution was debate limited. The filibuster fits nicely into the Senate’s foundational function.

It is a safeguard for voters who may not have elected majority party members to represent them in the Senate. The upper house must hear minority party voices to consider all constituents’ interests and prevent the majority party from exercising too much power. Free debate, like freedom of speech, is an inherent check that keeps any one person or group from accumulating too much power.


The filibuster was present in the Senate from September 22, 1789, when the Virginian delegation used debate to delay and defeat the passage of a bill. Senators used it more commonly in the contentious sessions leading up to the Civil war in the mid 19th century. Its use accelerated in the 20th century, leading to calls for a way to resolve filibusters in 1917.

As the Senate workloads increased, filibusters that further limited the Congress’s time became burdensome. As a result, the leadership introduced Senate Rule 22, and cloture became a valuable tool.


Cloture forces a filibuster to an end-point by limiting the amount of debate time and calling for a vote. When the Senate passed Rule 22, two-thirds of those present and voting had to vote to break the filibuster. In 1949, the Senate voted to make cloture more difficult to invoke by requiring a two-thirds majority of the entire Senate, thus requiring 67 votes to pass cloture.

By 1959, after the Senate had experienced more filibusters, senators voted to revert the rules to the original two-thirds of those voting. Rules changed again in 1970, allowing a two-track system in which the Senate could consider more than a single piece of legislation at a time. In 1975, the cloture rule was revised to a three-fifths majority, or 60 votes to break frivolous filibusters more quickly.

Feelings About the Tactic

In general, those who oppose the filibuster and wish to see its revision or demise argue it holds up legislation that has a chance of passing and prevents senators from doing their jobs. They feel it is a waste of time by the minority when there’s little chance of legislation passing.

Those who support it feel it’s an essential part of what makes the Senate different from the US House of Representatives — as the Founding Fathers intended. It seems clear that the Founders, based on how they structured Congress through the Constitution, wanted senators to reach a consensus. Eliminating the filibuster could create deeper divides between the parties and leave the minority party without any ability to prevent sweeping legislative actions by the majority party, potentially destabilizing the Legislative branch.

The filibuster has had a winding history. It’s a frequently-used tool that can make a significant impact. Considering the stabilizing effects debate and consensus have contributed historically, legislators would be well-advised to consider their actions carefully concerning the filibuster.

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