Senate historian explores legacy of filibusters

Director of the Senate Historical Office Donald Ritchie discusses the importance of filibusters. Nathaniel Boley/Photo Editor
Director of the Senate Historical Office Donald Ritchie discusses the importance of filibusters.
Nathaniel Boley/Photo Editor

Last Thursday, Director of the Senate Historical Office Donald Ritchie lectured on the history and implications of filibustering in the U.S. Senate, in conjunction with an earlier appearance he made in a history class called “History Behind the Headlines.”

Ritchie’s lecture, titled “Why in the World Does the Senate Put Up with Filibusters,” presented an account of the development of the filibuster in Congress and

worked to address why the Senate allows its members to filibuster.

Ritchie explained that the Senate is “one of the few legislative bodies anywhere that allows … the minority faction … or just a single senator to stop everything from happening.” The House of Representatives, for example, has not permitted filibustering since 1842, when a rule limiting the length of debate was instituted.

The purpose of a filibuster is to prevent a Senate vote from taking place because taking votes allows the majority to pass legislation that the minority opposes and pursue the next object on its agenda. Thus, this tool allows the minority to protect itself from legislation it disagrees with via slowing the legislative process and opening the floor to debate.

Filibusters may be ended by cloture, for which 60 votes are needed. “To some extent the filibuster has made the Senate work,” Ritchie argued, because it has forced bipartisanship. Senators must make compromises on legislation in order to achieve even watered-down goals because cloture cannot be filed otherwise.

Ritchie no

ted that people who filibuster do not refer to their action as filibustering, but merely as debating an issue on the floor, while their political opponents are quick to

label their actions as filibustering.

Many attempts to

kill legislation using filibusters have taken place throughout the Senate’s history. In 1960, a

filibuster conducted by teams of senators a

iming to block civil rights legislation supported by President Lyndon Johnson lasted an incredible 57 days in an effort “to wear out the majority,” according to Ritchie. The Democratic majority in the Senate at the time had to maintain a quorum of 51 senators throughout the filibuster in order to prevent the legislation from being killed. This prompted senators to sleep on cots in a side room, technically on the Senate floor, so they could be available when needed. The astounding length of this filibuster was in part due to the weather that accompanied its beginning and end: It was snowing in Washington, D.C.,

on the day that the filibuster was first reported and over 100 degrees on its last day.

The filibuster has not only been used to kill bills, but also to draw public attention to legislation that they perceive as highly dangerous. Ted Cruz, the Republican junior senator from Texas, most recently demons

trated this tactic with a 19-hour filibuster arguing for allowing a government shutdown rather than funding the Affordable Care Act. As Ritchie explained, “cloture had already been filed” in this case, which means that a vote would have taken place regardless of Cruz’s filibuster. Therefore, Cruz used his filibuster primarily to draw public attention to the issue. Based on the amount of media coverage he received from the stunt, Cruz was successful in this attempt.

In the instance of the 57-day filibuster, public attention was a negative force for Republicans, as the public became restless regarding the stall in Congress. Similarly, much negative attention was directed toward Cruz, even from members of the Republican Party, as his efforts were seen as both counterproductive for Republican goals and a waste of time.

The record for the long

est filibuster by a single senator belongs to Strom Thurmond (a Republican from South Carolina), who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in 1957. It is important to note that a senator need not continuously speak for the entire duration of their filibuster. Senators can take questions from other senators and take advantage of other procedural actions. Senators have developed multiple strategies for how to “hold the floor” throughout history to allow their filibusters to last for the longest possible amount of time.

The filibuster is a measure that has stood the test of time as a part of the democratic process of the Senate. While it has the capacity to frustrate the majority party, it is a tradition that will most likely remain in place for years to come.


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