Friday, January 11, 2008
This article refers to the political act of filibuster. For other uses see Filibuster (disambiguation).
As a form of obstructionism in a legislature or other decision making body, a filibuster is an attempt to extend debate upon a proposal in order to delay or completely prevent a vote on its passage. The term first came into use in the United States Senate, where Senate rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless a supermajority group of 60% of senators brings debate to a close by invoking cloture. In the United Kingdom Parliament, a bill defeated by this maneuver is said to have been "talked out".
The term 'filibuster' was first used in 1851. It was derived from the Spanish filibustero for 'pirate' or 'freebooter'. This term had evolved from the French word flibustier, which itself evolved from the Dutch vrijbuiter (freebooter). This term was applied at the time to American adventurers, mostly from Southern states, who sought to overthrow the governments of Central American states, and was transferred to the users of the filibuster, seen as a tactic for pirating or hijacking debate.
In current practice, Senate Rule 22 permits procedural filibusters, in which actual continuous floor speeches are not required, although the Senate Majority Leader may require an actual traditional filibuster if he or she so chooses. This threat of a filibuster can therefore be as powerful as an actual filibuster. Previously the filibustering senator(s) could delay voting only by making an endless speech. Currently they need only indicate that they are filibustering, thereby preventing the senate from moving on to other business until the motion is withdrawn or enough votes are gathered for cloture.
Preparations for a filibuster can be very elaborate. Sometimes cots are brought into the hallways or cloakrooms for senators to sleep on. According to Newsweek, "They used to call it 'taking to the diaper,' a phrase that referred to the preparation undertaken by a prudent senator before an extended filibuster. Strom Thurmond visited a steam room before his filibuster in order to dehydrate himself so he could drink without urinating. An aide stood by in the cloakroom with a pail in case of emergency."
In 1789, the first U.S. Senate adopted rules allowing the Senate "to move the previous question," ending debate and proceeding to a vote. In 1806, Aaron Burr argued that the motion regarding the previous question was redundant, had only been exercised once in the preceding four years, and should be eliminated. The Senate agreed, and thus the potentiality for a filibuster sprang into being. Because the Senate created no alternative mechanism for terminating debate, the filibuster became an option for delay and blocking of floor votes.
The filibuster remained a solely theoretical option until 1841, when the Democratic minority tried to block a bank bill favored by the Whig majority by using this political tactic. Senator Henry Clay, a promoter of the bill, threatened to change Senate rules to allow the majority to close debate. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton rebuked Clay for trying to stifle the Senate's right to unlimited debate and he was unsuccessful in eliminating the filibuster with a simple majority vote.
In 1917 a rule allowing for the cloture of debate (ending a filibuster) was adopted by the Democratic Senate in 1975 revised its cloture rule so that three-fifths of the Senators sworn (usually 60 senators) could limit debate. Changes to Senate rules still require two-thirds of Senators voting. Despite this rule, the filibuster or the threat of a filibuster remains an important tactic that allows a minority to affect legislation. Strom Thurmond (D/R-SC) set a record in 1957 by filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes, although the bill ultimately passed. Thurmond broke the previous record of 22 hours and 26 minutes set by Wayne Morse (I-OR) in 1953 protesting the Tidelands Oil legislation.
The filibuster has tremendously increased in frequency of use since the 1960s. In the 1960s, no Senate term had more than seven filibusters. In the first decade of the 21st century, no Senate term had fewer than 49 filibusters. The 1999-2002 Senate terms both had 58 filibusters. 
The 20th century and the emergence of cloture
Filibusters do not occur in legislative bodies in which time for debate is strictly limited by procedural rules. The House did not adopt rules restricting debate until 1842, and the filibuster was used in that body before that time.
In current practice, Senate Rule 22 permits procedural filibusters, in which actual continuous floor speeches are not required, although the Senate Majority Leader may require an actual traditional filibuster if he or she so chooses. This threat of a filibuster can be just as powerful as an actual filibuster.
Budget bills are governed under special rules called "reconciliation" which do not allow filibusters. Reconciliation once only applied to bills that would reduce the budget deficit, but since 1996 it has been used for all matters related to budget issues.
A filibuster can be defeated by the governing party if they leave the debated issue on the agenda indefinitely, without adding anything else to the agenda. Strom Thurmond's attempt to filibuster the Civil Rights Act was defeated when Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson refused to refer any further business to the Senate, which required the filibuster to be kept up indefinitely. Instead, the opponents were all given a chance to speak and the matter eventually was forced to a vote.
According to a Historical Moments Essay on the U.S. Senate website, the Republican Party was the first to initiate a filibuster against a judicial nominee in 1968, forcing Democratic president Lyndon Johnson to withdraw the nomination of Associate Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas to be chief justice.
In 2005, a group of Republican senators led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), responding to the Democrats' threat to filibuster some judicial nominees of President George W. Bush to prevent a vote on the nominations, floated the idea of eliminating filibusters on judicial nominees by declaring current Senate rules allowing such filibusters unconstitutional. Senator Trent Lott, the junior Republican senator from Mississippi, named the plan the "nuclear option." Republican leaders later referred to the plan as the "constitutional option," though opponents and some supporters of the plan continue to use "nuclear option."
On May 23, 14 senators — seven Democrats and seven Republicans — led by John McCain (R-AZ) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) brokered a deal to allow three of Bush's nominees a vote on the Senate floor while leaving two others subject to a filibuster. The seven Democrats promised not to filibuster Bush's nominees except under "extraordinary circumstances," while the seven Republicans promised to oppose the nuclear option unless they thought a nominee was being filibustered that wasn't under "extraordinary circumstances." Specifically, the Democrats promised to stop the filibuster on Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William H. Pryor, Jr., who had all been filibustered in the Senate before. In return, the Republicans would stop the effort to ban the filibuster for judicial nominees. "Extraordinary circumstances" was not defined in advance. The term was open for interpretation by each Senator, but the Republicans and Democrats would have had to agree on what it meant if any nominee were to be blocked. Senator John Kerry led a failed filibuster against Judge (now Justice) Alito in January 2006, calling Alito's nomination an "extraordinary circumstance."
This agreement expired at the end of the second session of the 109th United States Congress (ended January 3, 2007).
Senate Democratic leadership allowed a filibuster on July 17, 2007 on debate about a variety of amendments to the 2008 defense authorization bill H.R. 1585, the Defense Authorization bill, specifically the Levin-Reed amendment S.AMDT.2087 to H.R.1585. The filibuster had been threatened by Republican leadership to prompt a cloture vote.
A unique form of filibuster was pioneered by the Ontario New Democratic Party in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in April 1997. To protest Progressive Conservative government legislation that would amalgamate the city of Toronto, Ontario, the small New Democratic caucus introduced 11,500 amendments to the megacity bill, created on computers with mail merge functionality. Each amendment would name a street in the proposed city, and provide that public hearings be held into the megacity with residents of the street invited to participate. The Ontario Liberal Party also joined the filibuster with a smaller series of amendments; a typical Liberal amendment would give a historical designation to a named street. The NDP then added another series of over 700 amendments, each proposing a different date for the bill to come into force.
The filibuster began on April 2 with the Abbeywood Trail amendment and occupied the legislature day and night, the members alternating in shifts. On April 4, exhausted and often sleepy government members inadvertently let one of the NDP amendments pass, and the handful of residents of Cafon Court in Etobicoke were granted the right to a public consultation on the bill (the government subsequently nullified this with an amendment of their own). On April 6, with the alphabetical list of streets barely into the Es, Speaker Chris Stockwell ruled that there was no need for the 230 words identical in each amendment to be read aloud each time, only the street name. With a vote still needed on each amendment, Zorra Street was not reached until April 8. The NDP amendments were then voted down one by one, eventually using a similar abbreviated process, and the filibuster finally ended on April 11.
See Common Sense Revolution for more information.
External link: archive of the amendment debates in the Provincial Hansard. The filibuster extends from section L176B of the archive to L176AE; the Cafon Court slip-up is in section L176H, Stockwell rules on the issue of repetition in L176N, and Zorra Street is reached in L176S. Bill 103 - The Megacity Bill
Procedural rules in the British House of Commons do not allow Members to speak on just any subject; they must stick to the topic of the debate.
In 1874, Joseph Gillis Biggar started with making long speeches in the British House of Commons to delay passage of Irish coercion acts. Charles Stewart Parnell, a young nationalist MP, who in 1880 became leader of the party, joined him in this tactic to generally obstruct the business of the House to force the Liberals and Conservatives to negotiate with Irish nationalist MPs. The tactic was enormously successful and Parnell succeeded in, for a time, forcing Parliament to take the "Irish question" seriously.
In 1983, Member of Parliament (MP) John Golding talked for over 11 hours during an all-night sitting at the committee stage of the British Telecommunications Bill. However, as this was at a standing committee and not in the Commons chamber, he was also able to take breaks to eat. The all-time Commons record for non-stop speaking is six hours, set by Henry Brougham in 1828.
The 20th-Century record for the longest non-stop Commons speech is held by Conservative barrister Sir Ivan Lawrence. The then MP for Burton spoke for four hours 23 minutes during the Fluoridation Bill's committee stage on March 6, 1985.
The 21st-Century record was set on December 2, 2005 by Andrew Dismore, Labour MP for Hendon. Dismore spoke for three hours 17 minutes to block a Conservative Private Member's Bill, the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Protection of Property) Bill, which he claimed amounted to "vigilante law".
The Northern Ireland House of Commons saw a notable filibuster in 1936 when Tommy Henderson (Independent Unionist MP for Shankill) spoke for nine and a half hours (ending just before 4 AM) on the Appropriation Bill. As this Bill applied government spending to all departments, almost any topic was relevant to the debate, and Henderson used the opportunity to list all his many criticisms of the Unionist government.
In the Southern Rhodesia House of Assembly, the Independent member Dr Ahrn Palley staged a similar all-night filibuster against the Law and Order Maintenance Bill in 1960.
Filibusters in other legislatures on the British model
In France, in August 2006, the left-wing opposition submitted 137,449 amendments to the proposed law bringing the share in Gaz de France owned by the French state from 80% to 34%, to allow for the merger between Gaz de France and Suez. Normal parliamentary procedure would require 10 years to vote on all the amendments.
The French constitution gives the government two options to defeat such a filibuster. The first one is through the use of the article 49 paragraph 3 procedure, according to which the law is adopted except if a majority is reached on a non-confidence motion. The second one is the article 44 paragraph 3 through which the government can force a global vote on all amendments it did not approve or submit itself.
In the end, the government did not have to use either of those procedures. As the parliamentary debate started, the left-wing opposition chose to withdraw all the amendments to allow for the vote to proceed. The "filibuster" was aborted because the opposition to the privatisation of Gaz de France appeared to lack support amongst the general population. It also appeared that this privatisation law could be used by the left-wing in the upcoming presidential election of 2007 as a political argument. Indeed, Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP - the right wing ruling party), Interior Minister, former Finance Minister and candidate to the presidency, had previously promised that the share owned by the French government in Gaz de France would never go below 70%.
The 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington climaxes with a young Junior Senator Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart), astonished to discover the corruption of his mentor, staging a filibuster to prevent his expulsion from the chamber long enough to expose the corruption.
On the TV show The West Wing, in episode #39 "The Stackhouse Filibuster", Senator Howard Stackhouse filibusters a health care bill for over nine hours on a Friday afternoon and evening. The resolution of the filibuster, when the West Wing staff uncover the reason behind it, constitutes the climax of the episode.
On the TV show Mister Sterling, in episode #9 "Final Passage", Senator Bill Sterling (Josh Brolin) stages a filibuster to block an education bill from passing without an amendment for prisoners' education.
On the TV show Due South, in episode #30 "One Good Man", Canadian Mountie Benton Fraser stages a filibuster to block the eviction by a slum lord of himself and his fellow tenants. Inspired by numerous viewings of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the local reverend's favorite film, Fraser fights for his belief that one good man can make a difference.
On the TV show King of the Hill, in episode #82 "Flush with Power", Hank Hill stages a filibuster in order to prevent his motion of repealing a low flow toilet by-law in Arlen from being voted down. During the course of the filibuster, the other council members leave to use the bathroom and realize how poor the new toilets really are. To prevent the filibuster from continuing and in the name of practicality, the other council members choose to vote in favor of repealing the by-law.
Posted by gigihong07 at 8:30 AM