The Filibuster, Part 1: Overview

The legislative accomplishments of the 111th Congress have been shaped by senators’ actual or threatened use of the filibuster and responses to it. In following the legislative machinations on both sides of the health reform debate that consumed much of the 111th Congress’s first year, I’ve become more aware of the role of the filibuster and my own inadequate understanding of it. In this and five subsequent posts, I will explore the history and use of the filibuster, countermeasures to it, and proposals for changes to rules governing it. This is my 2010 Summer Blog Project.

In this post I first introduce some basic concepts and dispense with a few topics that I will not develop in detail (though they are important and explored at great length elsewhere). Following that, I present the schedule for subsequent posts. At the end of this post I list selected references that are main, but not exclusive, sources of information for this series or make for good additional reading.

The least important but among the more fun things to know about “filibuster” is the word’s etymology. It’s said to be of Dutch or perhaps Spanish origin and meant “pirate” or “plunderer.” Argh! That suggests something powerful and devious, which is not what the framers intended. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Gregory Koger, author of Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate, commenced his own multi-post series on the subject with some definitions and basic ideas. So shall we. A filibuster is a delay or the threat of delay for strategic gain, whether legislative concessions or politically favorable attention. That definition is sufficiently broad to cover all manner of legislative obstruction, not just ones that lead to a debate-ending (cloture) vote. That is, a filibuster is not defined by the need for 60 votes in the Senate to end debate (the cloture threshold), though that is an often used modern countermeasure to one type of filibuster.

The filibuster isn’t confined to the Senate, though it has become more common in that chamber than in the House in modern times. In the 19th century filibuster frequency was higher in the House than the Senate. Subsequent parliamentary reforms largely eliminated access to delay tactics in that chamber, though some still exist. As Gregory Koger explains, House rules of debate set by the Rules Committee, which is stacked in the majority’s favor, limit the scope for filibuster.

[T]he House increasingly stages straightjacket debates in which the majority chooses how long a bill will be debated (not long, so they can go back to raising money and visiting their districts) and which amendments will come up for a vote (not many, and nothing that gives heartburn to majority party members).

For this reason in the remainder of this series I will focus exclusively on the Senate.

I will not address the extent to which the Senate’s cloture rule is constitutional. I consider that issue settled in favor of constitutionality and refer readers to Koger’s post on that issue.


This series will include one post each Tuesday for six weeks. The link in each item below will become live once the post is up.

  1. Overview — June 22, 2010 (this post)
  2. History — June 29, 2010
  3. Recent Use — July 6, 2010
  4. Countermeasures — July 13, 2010
  5. Proposals for Change — July 20, 2010
  6. Deliberate, Not Too Long, Mostly Bills (my favorite reform ideas) — July 27, 2010

Selected References

Beth, R. and Bach, S. (2003). Filibusters and Cloture in the Senate. Congressional Research Service.

Binder, S. and Smith, S. (1997). Politics or Principle: Filibustering in the United States Senate.

Hufford, J. (various). A five-part series on filibuster reform mechanisms at Organon (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5).

Klein, E. (various). Posts related to the filibuster. Washington Post.

Koger, G. (2009). A History of Filibustering. University of Miami Arts and Sciences Magazine. Fall.

Koger, G. (2009). Filibuster Finale. The Monkey Cage. October 26.

Koger, G. (2010). Reforming the Senate 1: Reviewing the Options. The Monkey Cage. March 12.

Koger, G. (2010). Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate.

Lilly, S. (2010). From Deliberation to Dysfunction: It Is Time for Procedural Reform in the U.S. Senate. Center for American Progress. March.

Marcus, R. (2010). Yes We Can Fix the Filibuster. The Washington Post. April 21.

The New York Times. (2010). A History of Overhauling Health Care.

Senior, J. (2010). Mr. Woebegone Goes to Washington. New York Magazine. April 4.

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