The most famous filibuster in American history is a fictional one. In Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart is Senator Jefferson Smith, a Washington outsider who has unwittingly been used and then betrayed by his late father’s friend, the powerful and corrupt Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). In the stirring climax, Senator Smith filibusters for more than a full day, to the point of absolute exhaustion, in order to stand up for himself and challenge Paine’s crooked plans. Smith’s filibuster is a tribute to American ideals, but even more than that it represents an idealized vision of the filibuster itself, as a way in which the little guy can resist and eventually triumph over the Senate and U.S. government’s most powerful forces.
That is indeed the ideal way in which this Senate measure protecting the voices and rights of a minority can be used. But across the filibuster’s history, and particularly as it became more frequently utilized in the mid- to late-20th century, it has been consistently used in quite literally the opposite way: to protect entrenched and powerful forces against challenges and changes. Understanding that consistent historical use is crucial if we’re going to have an informed and productive conversation about the role and limits of the filibuster in our 21st century.
The U.S. Senate describes a filibuster as “a loosely defined term for action designed to prolong debate and delay or prevent a vote on a bill, resolution, amendment, or other debatable question.” The filibuster isn’t one of the Senate rules or Congressional procedures outlined in the Constitution, and beginning in 1789 the first Senate operated with a rule that a simple majority vote was necessary to “move the previous question” and end debate on a bill. During his time as Vice President, Aaron Burr critiqued this rule, and in 1806 the Senate agreed, ending the process and making it possible for something like the filibuster to keep debate open indefinitely. That began to happen in the late 1830s and early 1840s, including an 1837 filibuster by Whig senators who opposed Andrew Jackson and sought to keep open a debate over censuring him, and an 1841 filibuster by Senator Henry Clay of a bill for a new national bank.
Such individual filibusters were few and far between until well into the 20th century. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson convinced the Senate to adopt a new rule, known as cloture, by which a vote of two-thirds of senators could end debate on any bill. Perhaps in response to this change, and perhaps because of increased media visibility, individual senators began to use the filibuster more regularly to challenge policies and advance their own agendas. The most prominent such filibustering senator was Louisiana’s populist demagogue and former Governor Huey Long, who conducted multiple filibusters during his brief time in the Senate (he was senator from 1932 until his 1935 assassination). Although Long was quite powerful by this time in his home state, his opposition to New Deal policies was certainly unpopular with fellow Democrats, and so he could be said to be challenging dominant forces through his filibusters.
As other senators, and particularly other conservative southern Democrats, began to use the filibuster more regularly, they did so directly in service of entrenched powerful forces, including white supremacy. In 1946, progressive New Mexico Senator Dennis Chávez introduced a bill to make permanent President Roosevelt’s World War II-era Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC), a federal government entity which had since its 1941 creation sought to help minorities obtain wartime jobs and to address and challenge workplace discrimination more broadly. Chávez had the votes to pass his bill, but five conservative southern Democratic senators — Louisiana’s John H. Overton, Georgia’s Richard B. Russell, Maryland’s Millard E. Tydings, North Carolina’s Clyde R. Hoey, and Tennessee’s Kenneth McKellar — filibustered for weeks, eventually forcing Chávez to withdraw the bill.