An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The History of the Filibuster

Oct 1, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1. Professor Elder, you know more about American History than most citizens. How did this thing called a ” filibuster ” get started in our nation?

The ability of a United States senator to talk as long as he or she is physically able to was not originally allowed when that body first came into existence. When the Senate organized itself in 1789, it adopted a rule allowing a member to move the previous question. This is a procedure that can end debate if it passes by a simple majority. But in the Senate’s first few years of operation, no one ever felt the need to move the previous question. Noting that fact, Aaron Burr suggested that the Senate should eliminate the rule as superfluous. In 1806 the Senate did exactly that, apparently never realizing that this would theoretically allow one of its members to hold the floor indefinitely.

2) What were the founding fathers thinking when they allowed this ?

While today we recognize that the Senate’s decision in 1806 was a serious lapse of judgment, it seems clear that no one at the time felt any qualms about ending the principle of moving the previous question.

3) Now, historically who engaged in the FIRST filibuster ?

For over a quarter of a century after the Senate ended the principle of moving the previous question, it seemed like the Senate had been entirely justified in its actions because no one tried to hold the floor for an unacceptably long period of time. The Congressional Record suggests that the first lengthy speech specifically designed to delay discussion of a bill took place in 1837, but most experts point to 1841 as the year that the practice became a recognized tactic.

In that year, the Senate was discussing a bill to re-charter the Bank of the United States, and Senator Henry Clay felt that the opponents were unnecessarily holding up the process. He attempted to end debate on the bill, but a number of his colleagues pointed out that according to the rules they could talk as long as they wanted to. Thus, the filibuster was born.

4) Where does this word even come from? British history? European history?

Filibuster” is actually a military term. It came into English from a Spanish word that describes a warrior who essentially acts on his or her own to take advantage of an opportunity. It seemed to political observers that a person in the Senate who exercises the right to talk as long as the member chooses is acting like a filibusterer.

5) Now some factual questions—Who engaged in the LONGEST filibuster ?

A senator by the name of Strom Thurmond holds the record for the longest filibuster. He spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in 1957 in an effort to derail discussion of a Civil Rights Act. In 1964 a group of senators held the floor for 75 straight hours to try to stop another Civil Rights Act from being discussed.

6) Historically, how many have there been, and how do you, as a historian rate their effectiveness?

Filibusters were used infrequently in history until recently, starting with the Civil Rights era. But they have become increasingly common as a first, rather than a last, recourse, because they can be very effective in keeping legislation from being discussed in a timely fashion.

7) Is there any recourse to a filibuster that may go on for a day or so?

There is a principle called “cloture” that can be invoked to end a filibuster, but it requires a super-majority of 67 votes to be enacted.

8) Why is the “filibuster” important in history?  Is this mechanism a solitary individual- a voice in the wilderness? Or does the person conducting the filibuster have a legitimate point and are they representing their constituents?

The answer to this question depends on which side of the fence you are on regarding the subject being debated. Opponents of integration, for example, were in favor of the filibuster conducted by Strom Thurmond, but those same individuals 30 years later were infuriated by a filibuster to prevent debate from taking place on the confirmation of a conservative nominee for the Supreme Court.

9) Are there any books that you know of about this political machination?

Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and the Senate, by Gregory Koger, is the best that I have read.

10) What have I neglected to ask ? I can’t think of anything.

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