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MoveOn Bulletin, US Edition
Wednesday, January 15, 2003
Editor: Susan Thompson
Editorial Assistant: Leah Appet

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  1. Introduction: Talking a Bill to Death
  2. Editor's Note
  3. One Link: In Defense of the Filibuster
  4. What is a Filibuster?
  5. Notable Filibusters
  6. Filibusters to Fight Bad Policy
  7. Credits
  8. About the MoveOn bulletin and

Filibustering, or refusing to yield the floor to allow the Senate to vote on a bill, is a powerful tactic of last resort. Although the threat of filibustering is used more often than actual filibusters, it remains a potent political tool to delay legislation.

Unfortunately, since the option to filibuster is open to both parties, filibusters have been used to block positive legislation in the past (one good example would be civil rights legislation). They also give individual Senators a great deal of power to block Senate votes, raising the charge that filibusters are anti-democratic.

However, labelling filibusters as anti-democratic ignores the fact that on some occasions, a minority of senators may actually speak for the majority of the populace, making filibusters a stop-gap against policy-making that does not represent these interests. The current political situation is a good example. Since both the House and Senate are controlled by the Republicans, filibusters are the most potent tool left which can be used to oppose new legislation supporting the Bush administration's policies--policies which the majority of Americans may not even agree with, such as war on Iraq. They are, in essence, a tool to fight the "tyranny of the majority." That's why many members of peace and social justice movements are arguing for the use of filibusters to block far-right judicial appointments, and why they have supported Senator Byrd's threatened filibusters against the Homeland Security Bill and war on Iraq.

The filibuster is, after all, just a tactic made possible by the current structure of the Senate. As long as the option to filibuster remains, senators will continue to use it to oppose both "good" and "bad" bills. While it is important to acknowledge the sometimes unfortunate history of filibusters, what is more important is evaluating whether or not a filibuster is a smart strategic move in any given political situation. And at this point in history, they may be the last best resort that we have.

Although it's been a wonderful experience, I regent to inform our readership that I'll be leaving MoveOn this week for other opportunities. Thank you for your support. I've especially enjoyed the many kind emails and suggestions you've sent me over the past months. Take care and never give up hope that committed people working together can make a difference.
Susan Thompson

Despite its often-cited dishonorable historical association with anti-civil rights Senators, the filibuster (and the threat of the filibuster) has been used more and more frequently. As this article notes, "According to a 1995 survey published in the Brookings Review, there was an average of one filibuster per Congress in the 1950s, eleven per Congress in the 1970s, and nineteen per Congress in the 1980s. The 1991-92 Congress, the last one counted in the survey, saw a total of thirty-five filibusters."

In this article, a progressive lawyer argues that filibusters are, in fact, useful political tools that should be employed in the near future to block the appointment of far-right judges to the federal judiciary. Currently, there are almost 80 vacancies within the judiciary, and about 20 more will open this year. President Bush has already demonstrated a preference for extremely right-wing judges, and it is likely that he will choose nominations based on this preference.

"The use of the filibuster is undemocratic, and unquestionably so, to the extent that democracy is equated with simple majority rule. But if democracy is seen as a more complex process in which minorities, too, deserve a voice--and which even recognizes that public officials who belong to a political minority may nonetheless represent majority views on certain issues--then filibusters may have a legitimate role to play."

The word filibuster comes from "filibusteros," an old word for pirates. A filibuster is basically an extended debate in the Senate, which has the effect of preventing a vote, since a vote can only occur after a debate ends. It is used exclusively in the Senate because (unlike the House) Senate rules contain no motion to force a vote. Individual Senators filibuster simply by refusing to yield the floor--essentially, they just continue to talk about whatever they can for as long as they can. A filibuster can be ended by a two-thirds majority vote called a "cloture."

This is a good quick overview of the history of the word "filibuster." It is in point-form and includes two mildly comical illustrations.

A good general overview of filibustering in history.

This is another overview of the filibuster, which is a bit more concise and explains the events that introduced cloture as a method of ending filibusters.

In 1917, Robert La Follette used a filibuster to oppose arming merchant ships against German submarine attacks, an act that he believed would take the nation closer to involvement in World War I. In the face of accusations of treason and threats of expulsion, La Follette delivered a speech defending the right of free speech in times of war; the speech has subsequently become his most famous. When the war ended, pending expulsion resolutions against La Follette were dismissed, and he has since been named as one of the Senate's five most outstanding former members.

Huey Pierce Long, who served in the Senate until 1932, was infamous for filibustering, and often filibustered when he felt that the interests of the rich were being served over the interests of the poor. During his longest filibuster, he even resorted to providing his recipes for fried oysters and potlikkers.

In a 1953 filibuster against Tidelands Oil legislation, Wayne Morse set a new record with a speech that lasted for 22 hours and 16 minutes. The previous record had been set in 1908 by his mentor, Robert La Follette, who spoke for 18 hours.

Unfortunately, filibustering was used frequently by Southerners in the '50s and '60s to oppose civil rights bills. One filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 lasted 75 days, and Strom Thurmond holds the individual filibuster record, for a 24-hour speech he gave in an attempt to block civil rights legislation in 1957. He is now the oldest Senator as well--he had his 100th birthday in December 2002.,3604,854730,00.html

This Time article from 1957 gives an account of Thurmond's record filibuster and why it angered even Thurmond's colleagues. (Note that since this is an online version of the original article, it uses the term "Negroes.")

In 1964, the Senate was finally able to get enough votes to invoke cloture and end a filibuster on The Civil Rights Act, which "provided protection of voting rights; banned discrimination in public facilities—including private businesses offering public services—such as lunch counters, hotels, and theaters; and established equal employment opportunity as the law of the land." The cloture ended the filibuster of Senator Byrd, who spoke for 14 hours and 13 minutes straight.

The first filibuster in Senate history on a Supreme Court nomination occurred in 1968, over President Lyndon Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas for the position of Chief Justice. Fortas was too liberal for many of the Republican senators and Southern conservative Democratic Senators; his reputation also suffered because of his role as advisor to the President and a scandal involving his acceptance of large amounts of private money. A filibuster successfully stalled his confirmation, Republican Richard Nixon became President, and a conservative was nominated to the position.

The campaign finance reform battle of 1988 is one of the most dramatic filibusters in Senate history. Republicans filibustered against a campaign finance reform bill, and, in retaliation, Senator Byrd invoked a little-known provision that forced Republicans to the floor at 12:30 a.m. He sent the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest them and bring them to the floor, prompting many senators to run and hide--Senator Bob Packwood was literally carried back onto the floor, and one senator injured his fingers in an attempt to keep the Sergeant-at-Arms out of his office. In the end, the Democrats were unable to get cloture and the bill was dropped.

This brief article explains why the appointment of Supreme Court Justices is important enough to warrant filibustering:

"An enormous amount is at stake in the judicial confirmation process. A change in two votes on the Supreme Court could mean the overruling of Roe vs. Wade and a woman's right to reproductive choice. In the years ahead, federal courts will be deciding crucial questions concerning the federal government's power to provide remedies for civil rights violations, including employment discrimination based on race and gender.

Also, the federal courts are the essential and only check against excessive government interference with individual rights in the name of the war against terrorism. Indeed, in every area of personal freedom, from freedom of speech to privacy, American law and policy will depend on the composition of the courts."

Senator Robert Byrd recently waged an undeclared filibuster against the Homeland Security Bill (which has since passed). It was not considered a true filibuster because Byrd did not hold the floor continuously; however, it involved the same tactics of stalling using lengthy, irrelevant and colorful oratory. Among other things, Byrd read magazine articles and gave a lecture on the origin of the term "whip." "It's a filibuster, except in name," said Marshall Wittman, congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "This is as close as we get to it. The Senate has come to a halt for all intents and purposes."

Senator Byrd also threatened to filibuster President Bush's proposal to attack Iraq and succeeded in delaying it, sparking a wide-ranging call for letters and calls of support among peace activists. The Washington Post referred to Byrd as the "king of gridlock" and compared his recent filibustering to his former opposition to civil rights and membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

A 2002 Democratic filibuster by Senator John Kerry and Senator Joe Lieberman successfully prevented the passage of the controversial energy bill which would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.

Research team:
Dean Bellerby, Susan Bunyan, Lita Epstein, Terry Hackett, Sharon Hametz, Matthew Jones, Linda Langness, Cameron McLaughlin, Janelle Miau, Vicki Nikolaidis, Sarah Jane Parady, Kim Plofker, Jesse Rhodes, Ora Szekely, Bland Whitley, and Mary Williams.

Proofreading team:
Madlyn Bynum, Eileen Gillan, Mary Anne Henry, Kate Kressman-Kehoe, Kendra Lanning, Mercedes Newman, Dawn Phelps, Rebecca M. Sulock and Rita Weinstein.

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