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Explainer: What is a filibuster? And is it here to stay?

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Posted at 10:56 AM, Mar 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-04 12:56:30-05

Let’s say you’re a United States senator. There’s a new bill introduced, and you don’t like it. What can you do?

Filibuster.

A filibuster happens when a senator delays a vote by talking, and talking, and talking. You can talk about whatever you want, for as long as you want.

The Senate grinds to a halt. Senators who want the bill have only one way to stop you – it’s called invoking cloture. They need a supermajority, or 60 senators, to vote to shut you up.

But it wasn’t always this way.

The filibuster started by what some might consider an accident.

The Senate removed a rule to end debate on the Senate floor because some felt it was redundant. This left no formal way to end debate. Senators were free to talk endlessly to delay a vote.

By the mid-1800’s, senators talked so much the term “filibuster” was coined from Dutch and Spanish words “free-booter” and “filibusteros” - the words for troublesome pirates raiding the Caribbean islands.

In 1917, Senate rule 22 was adopted out of frustration. Finally, a formal mechanism could end filibusters through cloture, or that supermajority of 60 senators.

Before long, the filibuster changed again, in the 1970s. You no longer had to talk to filibuster. You didn’t even have to show up. You could just threaten to filibuster.

This is called the “silent filibuster.”

This was made possible by a two-track system that allowed the Senate to continue its business while a filibustered bill was stuck in limbo.

The number of filibusters has skyrocketed, requiring a supermajority to pass nearly anything.

Fast forward to 2013 -- facing endless obstruction, the rules were changed again to allow most presidential nominations to pass with 51 votes instead of 60.

This was so drastic it was dubbed “the nuclear option.”

The rules changed again in 2017, extending the nuclear option to Supreme Court nominations as well.

Today, many bills never see the light of day, and many are pushing for reform.

Though it was never in the Constitution, supporters of the filibuster believe it is an integral part of the Senate. It gives power and a voice to the minority party, and encourages compromise.

But opponents say it gridlocks the Senate and prevents anything from getting done.

Filibusters have also been predominantly used to block racial equality efforts. Between 1917 and 1994, nearly half of filibusters were used to block civil rights and anti-lynching bills, and poll taxes.

So as the appetite for filibuster reform grows, what will the Senate do?

The question is up for debate.