June 2, 2023
The history of the Filibuster—or at least using the tactic of speech to delay legislation—appeared in the very first session of the Senate. "Talking a bill to death" was shared amongst the American legislation, so common that the tactic earned its derogatory name. The term "Filibuster" combines a Dutch and Spanish word. In Dutch, the derivative means "pirate" or "freebooter," while the Spanish "Filibusteros" harkens to the pirates that were then raiding the Caribbean islands.
The usage and word became popular in the United States during the 1850s and were used to describe people who made efforts to hold the Senate floor to prevent action on a bill. The tactic brought many complaints but was still seen as a way to protect political minorities and their stances.
Despite the act being a historical part of Senate debate since the inception of American law-making, the earliest Filibuster—after being named—occurred in 1841 when the Democratic minority attempted to run out the clock on a bill that would have created a national bank. It was controversial at the time with some senators finding the tactic frustrating and questionable. In contrast, others remained staunch supporters of the right of unlimited debate, a feature unique to the U.S. Senate.
Although the traditions and rules were respected, they were not seen as perfect. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Filibuster was becoming more and more frequent, causing gridlock in the Senate. An honest debate on its implementation was soon held, discussing whether the Filibuster stopped a tyrannical majority or just created an unproductive Senate.
The senate body under President Woodrow Wilson grew great frustration, which urged for change. As a result, Senate Rule 22, the cloture, was adopted by this senate group. The Cloture Rule was implemented to overrule and end the Filibuster if a two-thirds majority rule is reached (this, however, changed to only require a three-fifths vote in 1975). In addition, once a supermajority is reached, the debate is ended, and each member is allowed to speak for an additional hour before final voting.
A common question to follow is how often the cloture rule is used. Over the next 45 years since its creation, the Senate invoked the cloture on only five occasions. However, when the cloture vote changed from two-thirds to three-fifths in 1975, the number of cloture motions increased dramatically to tens of hundreds of motions.
Given the history and formation of the U.S. Senate, the Filibuster has always, in some form or another, been a unique feature, despite not being named until 65 years after the founding of the United States. Like many aspects of the American governmental system, the greatest strength was its evolution and adaptation. At its core, the Filibuster has always been used to ensure cooperation between political parties and keep the majority's powers in check. The history of the Filibuster and the changes it underwent are symbolic of the American law-making process, ensuring equality and offering a series of checks and balances, despite the gridlock it may cause on some bills.
Cloture Rule. (n.d). United States Senate. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/filibusters-cloture/senate-adopts-cloture-rule.htm
Filibuster. (n.d.). United States Senate. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from https://www.senate.gov/reference/Index/Filibuster.htm#:~:text=The%20term%20filibuster%2C%20from%20a,prevent%20action%20on%20a%20bill.
Reynolds, M. E. (2019, October 15). What is the Senate filibuster, and what would it take to eliminate it? https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/what-is-the-senate-filibuster-and-what-would-it-take-to-eliminate-it/