Philadelphia Inquirer OpEd - FilibustersDocument Transcript
FILIBUSTER'S 8/5/09 11:36 AM
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Posted on Sun, Jul. 12, 2009
Stephen J. Marmon
reported on Congress for the New York Times and is now an author and investment banker in
Now that Al Franken has been sworn in as Minnesota's new senator, Senate Democrats finally
have the 60 votes they need to stop the GOP's last major weapon: the filibuster. If they can get
those votes when they need them, it will bring about a major shift in American politics.
For two centuries, this parliamentary maneuver, unique to the United States, has allowed any
senator to delay action for as long as he or she could keep talking on the Senate floor or, with the
support of 40 percent of the Senate (33 percent before 1975), kill a bill or nomination. From Jimmy
Stewart's battle to stop a crooked land-development bill in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to an
episode of The West Wing where a 10-hour filibuster won $47 million to fight autism, the filibuster
has been portrayed as a key safeguard of minority interests. Its importance has especially
increased in recent years.
The first filibuster was in 1837, although Senate rules had allowed unlimited debate since 1806.
Opponents of President Andrew Jackson vowed to talk until the Senate adjourned, hoping to block
a move to expunge an 1834 resolution that had censured him for trying to kill the Second Bank of
the United States. Jackson's supporters "fortif[ied] themselves with an ample supply, in a nearby
room, of cold hams, turkeys, beef, pickles, wines and hot coffee." The attempt failed and the
resolution was expunged.
Filibusters were rarely used during the next 80 years, until a national uproar sparked the first rule to
stop them. After German submarines resumed attacks on ships headed for Britain, President
Woodrow Wilson introduced a bill to arm U.S. merchant vessels. Eleven senators, fearing it would
lead to war, filibustered until Congress adjourned on March 4, 1917.
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FILIBUSTER'S 8/5/09 11:36 AM
The release of a telegram revealing that Germany had invited Mexico into an alliance to seize
Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona sparked national outrage and Wilson demanded action. "A little
group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of
the United States helpless and contemptible," he said. There were protests and postings of "rolls of
dishonor;" one state legislature denounced the delay as "little short of treason," and another called
the filibustering senators "unmanly, unpatriotic [and] un-American."
Reaction to those supporting the filibuster was intense. University of Illinois students hung Sen.
Robert LaFollette in effigy; state residents delivered 30 pieces of silver to Arkansas Sen. William
Kirby, declaring "if Judas Iscariot earned his, so have you," and voters sent a large iron cross
inscribed "Lest the Kaiser Forget" to Mississippi Sen. James Vardaman.
Congress quickly reconvened and the Senate voted 76-3 that two-thirds of those present and
voting could invoke "cloture" to close down debate. That limited filibusters but also institutionalized
them, since a two-thirds majority would be needed to change Senate rules. Cloture was invoked for
the first time in November 1919, ending a filibuster on the Treaty of Versailles.
Despite cloture, dozens of filibusters were used to block civil rights legislation over the next 50
years, including a record-setting 24 hours and 13 minute marathon in 1957 by South Carolina Sen.
Strom Thurmond (even longer than Stewart's cinematic effort). The Civil Rights Act of 1964
endured a 57-day filibuster before it was passed.
In March 1975 a bloc of liberal senators won a favorable ruling from Vice President Nelson
Rockefeller (in his role as president of the Senate) that enabled them, after decades of failed
efforts, to cut cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths. But Southern conservatives weakened that
change to require three-fifths of the full Senate (60 of 100 senators), not just those present and
voting. They also ensured that any further changes to the cloture rule would need a two-thirds
By the mid-1980s actual filibusters were rare, but the political leverage of a filibuster threat became
a common tactic whether Democrats or Republicans were in the minority. Before 1970 no two-year
Congress ever saw more than seven cloture motions. Filibuster threats then started to dramatically
rise, hitting a record of 139 cloture motions in the 2007-08 Congress and blocking most
controversial legislation or contentious nominees.
After Democrats blocked votes on President Bush's judicial nominees in 2005, the Senate's GOP
leaders threatened to abolish the filibuster. Sen. John McCain led the bipartisan "Gang of 14" that
pledged not to kill it if votes were allowed on most nominees. Sen. Barack Obama did not join them
and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "I'm not a huge fan of the filibuster. Historically, what was it
used for? Keeping me [African Americans] out of polling places."
The power of a filibuster threat was demonstrated again this February, when Obama and the
Democrats had to make significant concessions in their stimulus bill to gain the support of Sen.
Arlen Specter, before he switched parties, as well as Maine GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia
Snowe. The seating of Franken now means the Republicans have lost their last tactic to block the
In the 92 years since the start of cloture, Senate Democrats have had filibuster-proof majorities
three times - 1935-43, 1965-67 and 1975-79 (the GOP has never reached that level). But those
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