Jun 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The filibuster's evolution

Illustration of an open mouth with the volume symbol next to it surrounded by falling papers
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The filibuster is often painted as an archaic Senate rule carved in stone. In reality, it's evolved over time.

Why it matters: Washington’s attention has been fixed to the filibuster amid a 50-50 Senate and critical debates over infrastructure and voting rights. Proponents bill it as a crucial fixture designed to protect the minority; critics pillory it as a tool of obstruction.

  • Talk of changing it is rooted in its history.

Between the lines: The first recorded use of delivering a lengthy speech to delay legislative action was at the very first Senate session in 1789.

  • The term "filibuster" appeared in the lexicon of American legislative debates in the 1850s, though the practice was fairly infrequent.
  • Filibusters became more frequent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and in 1917, senators adopted a rule to invoke “cloture." That cut off debate with a two-thirds majority vote.

During the next four decades, the Senate managed to invoke cloture only five times. Filibusters proved to be particularly useful to Southern senators seeking to block civil rights legislation.

  • In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of the current 100 senators.
  • That's the current rule.

The road ahead: While the two most steadfast opponents of eliminating the filibuster have been Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), there are a number of other Democratic senators who agree.

  • All argue removing such minority power could backfire when their party is no longer in the majority.
  • While Sinema remains opposed to its total elimination, she's signaled openness to a debate about reforming the rules.
  • "It is time for the Senate to debate the legislative filibuster, so senators and our constituents can hear and fully consider the concerns and consequences," she wrote this week in a Washington Post op-ed.

Democrats who want to reform the filibuster hold out hope such a debate could revive something called the “talking filibuster,” which Manchin and President Biden have suggested they support.

  • The party or person filibustering would have to endure some pain to delay legislation, such as holding off a vote only as long as they themselves can physically stand up on the Senate floor and speak against it.

Be smart: The most iconic portrayal of the talking filibuster is in the 1939 movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

  • Jimmy Stewart, cast as Sen. Jefferson Smith, delivers a speech on the Senate floor until he passes out.
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