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Sometimes “democracy’s finest show” sometimes “tyranny of the minority”, filibuster is used in many political systems across the world─including the U.K., Canada, Australia and France, but they require members to actually enact the filibuster (i.e., actually do the endless talking) so they are used very rarely. But in the U.S. Senate, however, the mere threat of it can stall the legislature, which somehow makes it the only legislative body that requires a three-fifths majority to bring bills to a vote. So how did it all began?

In 1806, Vice President Aaron Burr believed that a procedure for limiting/ending debates was improper. It was the long accepted practice of the gentlemanly Senate back then to allow each member sufficient time to speak before a vote. However, no one invoked a filibuster until 1841 over the issue of the firing of Senate printers. It lasted six days, but later that year Kentucky Senator Henry Clay’s banking bill was filibustered for 14 days. The procedure slowly got out of control and in 1917, President Wilson called for a cloture rule to cut off debate. It was first invoked two years later to end a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. [Originally, the cloture was by two-thirds, but in 1975, it was reduced to three-fifths, now the magic number 60.]

In 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart’s one-man filibuster further popularized the practice. Four years earlier, Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long read the Constitution, plays of Shakespeare and even recipes for oyster dishes for 15 hours to prevent a New Deal employment bill. But the longest uninterrupted filibuster on record belongs to South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who stopped a vote on a 1957 civil rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes–from 8:54 p.m. on August 28 and to 9:12 p.m. the next evening, he subjected the fellow senators to a long and hot summer night. “He read these monotonously, even listlessly from the lectern,” The New York Times reported, “so that the classic phrases might have been so many items from the telephone directory.” Above, Senator Thurmond holds up his speech, which contained the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, Washington’s Farewell Address, and other historical documents.

The previous record holder was Wayne Morse, an independent from Oregon who four years before had filibustered an offshore oil bill in 1953 for 22 hours and 26 minutes, without sitting down. Thurmond, on the other hand, did several times but his theatrical grandstand was approved by many Southerners, and empathized even by his political nemeses. Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois, a staunch liberal and supporter of civil rights, poured Thurmond colleague a glass of cold orange juice. Yet, Thurmond’s filibuster never stood a chance of derailing the bill. Most of his Southern colleagues were reluctantly willing to swallow the ineffective bill (Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson watered it down to get it passed), but it passed two hours later in a 62-15 vote. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 proved ineffective and it would take a much stronger measure, the 1965 Voting Rights Act–this time Johnson lent his full support.

The most effective effort to end a filibuster was that of Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia who attempted to end a 1987–1988 Republican filibuster against a campaign finance reform bill through a procedure that had last been wielded in 1942: he directed the Senate sergeant-at-arms to arrest absent members and bring them to the floor.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 6, 2009 at 8:34 am

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