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What Happened to the Filibuster?

"For those of you who have not been around for an all-night session, get ready, bring your sleeping bags, your blankets . . . because that's how long we're going to be here to complete this work, if necessary. I'm not going to waste nights . . . . This is going to be an old-fashioned filibuster if we're forced to confront one."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle referring to campaign finance reform legislation pending in the Senate.
(Washington Post, March 6, 2002)

Real or sham, a legitimate control or unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech, campaign finance reform legislation currently in Congress is within a Senate vote of becoming law. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle will have his vote by month's end. At the same time, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, never noted as a strong advocate of campaign finance reform, is talking the need for"technical" changes. McConnell vows he won't allow a vote before the energy legislation is finished. Daschle vows he will have the vote if it takes all night to break a Republican filibuster. So what exactly is a filibuster?

Nowadays, it's mostly a threat, not public theater as it was in the good old days.

Filibuster is from the Dutch for pirate. The filibuster is a time-honored practice. It used to be a person. Famous filibusters in the 1840s and 1850s included Narciso Lopez, who tried to invade Cuba a few times, and William Walker, who attempted invasions of Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras. As a side note, Governor John A. Quitman of Mississippi had to resign under indictment for aiding Lopez's filibustering efforts. That didn't hamper his career though; Southerners had no problem with the filibuster, and Mississippi elected Quitman to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1855. Coincidentally, at about the time Quitman moved to Congress, the filibuster moved too. In the process"filibuster" became a slur and a verb.

Congressional prerogative from the onset allowed for unlimited debate. But the House of Representatives grew with the United States population, and the House became too large for unlimited debate. The Senate, however, remained small enough that any member, having taken the floor, could talk endlessly, and the Senate had no method of stopping the speech.

Henry Clay of Kentucky attempted to change the system when his bank bill was stalled in 1841. He threatened to give a simple majority of the Senate the power to close debate. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri chastised Clay for trying to take away a Senator's right to unlimited debate, and the attempt died. Not until 1917 did the Senate finally agree to cloture.

Acting on a suggestion of President Woodrow Wilson, the Senate set a rule in 1917 that provided for debate to terminate on the vote of two-thirds of the members. The first test came in 1919 when cloture ended the filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles.

But two-thirds is a hard majority to obtain in a two-party system. Huey Long of Louisiana became famous in the 1930s for his filibusters against legislation he regarded as favoring the rich at the expense of the poor. Long spent hour after hour reciting Shakespeare and reading recipes for pot-likker, the liquid portion of a good mess of greens. Senatorial debate did not have to be germane; once on the floor, the Senator could speak on anything he chose. Long's top performance was 15 hours, not a record. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin set the record of 18 hours in 1908. The record stood until 1953 when Wayne Morse of Oregon, an independent-minded disciple of LaFollette, went for over 22 hours in opposition to a tidelands oil bill.

That record did not last. In the 1950s and 1960s, the height of the civil rights revolution, Southern senators filibustered with vigor. Strom Thurmond, as vigorous as they come, set the mark of 24 hours and 18 minutes in opposing the lackluster Civil Rights Act of 1957.

The anti-civil rights filibusters proved the undoing of the practice. As Southern Democratic influence waned, the Senate managed to work around the Southern filibusters to pass subsequent civil rights laws. The filibuster became discredited as nothing more than the stalling tactic it was and was stigmatized by its association with the anti-civil rights Southerners. In 1975 the Senate accepted a rule allowing cloture by a vote of only 60 senators.

After that, the filibuster waned. It remained possible, but more as a threat than an as an actual performance. Now both parties talk filibuster to make their political points. Even Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts used the threat during the Ashcroft confirmation hearings. But it's not the same as it used to be, and more often than not the threat comes from a group. There's not the grand solo performance that made filibusters the colorful freebooters who drove their less interesting colleagues to distraction. The decline of the filibuster is another example of the sacrifice of democratic inefficiency to the efficiency the Senate is so admired for in the twenty-first century.

So let them talk, but at least let them talk of pot-likker instead of abortion.

Note: for a quick history of the Congressional filibuster, check out the Senate web site: http://www.senate.gov/learning. For more on greens, see http://southernfood.about.com/.