The Filibuster, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Luke Walpole

Etymologically, the term ‘filibuster’ derives from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, which is translated to ‘freebooter’; that is, a plundering adventurer. Frankly, that is a useless piece of trivia and doesn’t help to explain what the filibuster actually is. However, it might serve you well in a Pub Quiz, so there’s that.


What began in Ancient Rome, a filibuster is a political manoeuvre where a bill is ‘talked out’. This essentially means that a Member of Parliament or Congress can debate the bill for so long that it doesn’t get passed at all. This is because both the UK Parliament and the US Congress have intensive schedules, which in turn means that all bills only have a certain amount of time to be debated, amended, and passed.

For a while, the filibuster went out of fashion. It became de rigueur to simply state your opposition to a bill, and this implicit threat would cause those drafting the bill to re-think their strategy. Yet it was seemingly revived in the 1950s and 60s, during the extended discourse on Civil Rights for African Americans. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina took things to another level, when his rebuttal of the 1957 Civil Rights Act was sustained for 24 hours and 18 minutes. Yes you read that correctly, a US Senator was so set on obstructionism that he spoke for over a day. Thurmond’s crusade, however, fell short, and the bill did pass.

Busting the Filibuster

So how do you tackle a filibuster? Though that sounds like a corollary to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the reality is that the US Senate can invoke a ‘cloture’ motion to do just that. A successful cloture motion allows the Senate to move to the final vote and takes away the debating element to a bill. Now, it takes 60 votes to invoke a cloture motion, which means that it takes 41 Senators (as the Senate comprises of 100 members) to block this. When this happens, we reach something of a stalemate, and a degree of compromise sometimes arises.

The filibuster can also cause problems when ratifying Presidential appointments, something which we are now seeing through the convoluted appointment of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. This stems from a series of partisan filibusters throughout the noughties and was only partially alleviated in 2013 when the Senate decided that the filibuster simply couldn’t be adopted in regard to executive branch nominees and judicial nominees. The loophole, however, is that you can filibuster Supreme Court picks; something which the Democrats are intent on doing presently.

Going Nuclear

So what can the Republicans, namely Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, actually do? Well, he can orchestrate a vote which essentially takes the right of the filibuster away from the minority party. McConnell needs only a simple majority to achieve this (something which would be easily done, as the Republicans possess this presently). This has been described since 2003 as ‘The Nuclear Option’ as it seemingly runs in complete contrast to the collegiate atmosphere the Senate is supposed to maintain.

This would not be unprecedented. In fact, it would be the expansion of the aforementioned changes enacted in 2013 by the Senate, when it was controlled by the Democrats. And it’s this ‘tit-for-tat escalation of partisan warfare’ to quote the New York Times (not ‘failing’) which really hangs a heavy spectre over the Senate. The filibuster has become a political weapon and is symptomatic of the toxic partisanship which has subsumed the American system.

Here’s one last thing to ponder. The Supreme Court is supposed to be an apolitical institution, and nominees are supposed to be selected (or not) on the merit of their judicial skill. Yet from Robert Bork in 1987, through to the farce surrounding Merrick Garland’s attempted nomination last year, this ideal has been corrupted. How can the judicial branch, one of the three arms of the U.S. political system, remain neutral and provide effective oversight, if its members are the product of partisan bickering?

Image rights: CSPAN @ Commons Wikimedia

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