By Alex Bregman
You’ve probably been hearing the word “filibuster” flying around lately, with Senate Democrats set to use one to try to block Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. So what is a filibuster and where did it come from?
The term comes from a Dutch word meaning “pirate.”
In American politics, it’s when a minority of U.S. senators try to block the majority from bringing something to a vote. In order to get anything voted on in the Senate, senators have to end the debate on that issue.
So a filibuster is when senators talk as long as they want about anything they want to prevent that debate from ending.
Where did filibusters come from? Senators can thank Vice President Aaron Burr. In 1805, just after he had killed Alexander Hamilton in that infamous duel, Burr gave a farewell address to the Senate. He suggested senators should get rid of what was called the “previous question” motion, which let senators cut off debate with a simple majority or 51 senators. They heeded Burr’s advice and got rid of the rule, which ultimately gave birth to the filibuster.
A famous early filibuster came in 1841, when Sen. Henry Clay tried to pass a bill establishing a national bank, the minority launched a filibuster that lasted 14 days.
Cut to 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson had had enough of the Senate tactic after a group of senators blocked a bill to arm merchant ships at the start of World War I. As a matter of national security, Wilson demanded the Senate adopt a procedure, called “cloture,” for formally ending any debate, including a filibuster. It required two-thirds of senators to say enough already.
In 1939, filibusters probably got their biggest moment in the spotlight in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond holds the record for longest individual filibuster ever, at 24 hours and 18 minutes, for trying to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
In 1975, the Senate changed the cloture rule, requiring just three-fifths, or 60 Senators, to end debate, but not even that didn’t stop filibusters altogether.
For instance, Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster in 2013 to try to block the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan for nearly 13 hours.
It happened again in 2015, when Paul tried to block parts of the Patriot Act from getting renewed. That one lasted 10 and a half hours.
OK, that’s a lot of filibustering, but when it comes to what one is, at least you can say, “Now I get it.”