U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
What is a filibuster?
A: Many Americans
may be surprised to learn the Senate rules do not define what constitutes a
filibuster. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a filibuster as “the use of
extreme dilatory tactics in an attempt to delay or prevent action especially in
a legislative assembly.” The fact is, a filibuster can refer to any procedure
perceived to slow action.
most Americans think of the filibuster, they think of a senator talking on the
Senate floor at length to delay proceedings and make a point. Our cultural
understanding of a filibuster has been shaped by the classic film Mr. Smith
Goes to Washington where Jimmy Stewart’s character single-handedly faces
down corrupt senators by refusing to yield the floor until they back down.
is certainly one type of filibuster. There have been many cases in Senate
history up to present day where individual senators have used the Senate right
to unlimited debate to make extended speeches to
make a point. The right to unlimited debate goes back to the early days of the
Senate, which was always intended to be a more deliberative body than the
1806, the Senate revised its rules, eliminating entirely the motion to call the
previous question, the same motion the House still uses for a simple majority
to force a final vote. In 1841, Henry Clay unsuccessfully proposed reinstating
a simple-majority vote to shut off debate, and other senators have followed
suit at various times, including Stephen Douglas, most famous for debating
Abraham Lincoln on the issue of slavery when Lincoln challenged him in the 1858
Senate election in Illinois.
in 1917, the Senate adopted the cloture rule allowing for two-thirds of
senators voting to bring debate on pending matters to a close even if a small
minority wishes to continue consideration. This was lowered to three-fifths of
all senators currently serving, usually 60 votes, in 1975. This update excluded
cloture on amendments to the Senate rules, including changes to the cloture
rule, which stayed at two-thirds. The last formal change to the cloture rule
was in 1986 when post-cloture debate time was lowered from 100 hours to 30.
However, under then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Senate in 2013 adopted a
precedent by a simple majority vote that the Senate would ignore the cloture
rule on the books, and use a simple majority for cloture on nominations. I and
other Republicans at the time warned they would regret this change, promising
we would use it when the tables were turned, including for the Supreme Court.
We were true to our word, and many Democrat Senators have since admitted they
do regret their vote.
What is this talk about returning to the “talking filibuster?”
The confusion between the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
image of a
filibuster and the cloture rule has led many commentators, members of the
media, and even President Biden to suggest there
was a time when senators had to speak non-stop to prevent the Senate moving to
a final vote with a simple majority. That has never been the case. Since 1806,
it has always required a super-majority to end debate on legislation if some
senators believe further consideration is needed, meaning not just debate but
for offering amendments as well. Don’t forget, cloture motions limit not just
debate but the right to offer amendments and receive an up or down vote. This
is an essential tool for senators to represent their states regardless of
party. President Biden cited statistics in his recent press conference about
the increased number of cloture motions last year compared to when he first
came to the Senate as proof the filibuster has been abused. Ironically, those
cloture motions were when his party was in the
minority and making liberal use of this tool. Republicans have yet to
filibuster any legislation since Democrats took the majority. However, cloture
motions do not necessarily mean there was a filibuster – a misconception pushed
the last time Democrats took control and complained about the filibuster. They
should have known better then and now because the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service
totally debunked that notion.
Senate was designed to be the cooling saucer to the House’s hot tea. The
principle of extended debate in the Senate frustrates hot-headed partisans on
both sides, while forcing bipartisan compromise. I stood up to Republicans who wanted to destroy the Senate’s tradition as a
more deliberative body for short term gain. So, it’s not too much to ask that
responsible Senate Democrats do the same today.