The Pros and Cons of Filibuster Explained


What Are the Pros and Cons of a Filibuster?

I was recently rewatching one of my favorite television series, West Wing. This show is primarily set in the White House but includes many scenes that show a behind-the-scenes view of how the United States creates and passes new legislation through Congress. In the episode I watched last night, one of the senators read an entire cookbook out loud on the Senate floor as part of a filibuster. It was a surprising move, and it made me want to learn more about the proceedings and fully understand: what are the pros and cons of filibuster? 

A filibuster occurs in the US Senate when a senator has the floor and talks for a prolonged period of time. The Senator must stay standing and speak continuously for the entire duration of the filibuster. 

Pros of a filibuster: 

  • Delay action on an issue, such as a final vote
  • Increase public awareness of an issue
  • Keep the majority party in check
  • Shape public opinion

Cons of a filibuster: 

  • Can be used for political gains
  • Slow the progress of an issue
  • Prevent a vote from taking place
  • Has a history of blocking civil rights progress

What Is a Filibuster?

What Is a Filibuster?

A filibuster is a mechanism used in the US Senate to prolong debate on an issue, typically with the intention of delaying further action, such as a vote, resolution, or amendment. The concept of the filibuster has existed since the Senate was first established, but the rules have changed somewhat over time.

Prior to 1917, there was no way to bring about a forced end to a filibuster; the Senate had to simply wait until the filibustering Senator stopped talking. In 1917 the Senate adopted a new rule that allows for a forced end to the filibuster with a two-thirds majority vote. This is known as “cloture.”

The rules changed again in 1975 when the Senate changed the number of votes required during cloture to end the filibuster. The updated rule requires just three-fifths of the Senators to vote for a filibuster to end.

How Does a Filibuster Work?

The filibuster is unique to the US Senate and can only be enacted by sitting Senators. Either a single Senator or a group of Senators can enact a filibuster. It takes advantage of the right to unlimited debate that members of the Senate enjoy.

The filibuster begins when a Senator is given the floor, meaning they have the right to speak before the Senate. They typically stay standing and continue speaking throughout the duration of the filibuster. They can talk about any topic they want; it doesn’t have to be related to any current issues before the Senate. They can also choose to read aloud from a text.

What Are Some Famous Filibusters?

What Are Some Famous Filibusters?

The use of the filibuster has ebbed and flowed over the years, due in part to public opinion. Here are some of the more famous filibusters in Senate history.

  • In 1908, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette spoke for 18 minutes and 23 minutes, setting the record for the longest filibuster at the time. This filibuster is well known as Senator La Follette requested food and drink but subsequently fell ill with food poisoning. He was eventually relieved by a colleague but was praised for his stamina even during the illness.
  • The next record-setting filibuster was in 1953 by another Senator from Wisconsin, Wayne Morse. He spoke for 22 hours and 26 minutes, focusing on the legislative issues surrounding Tidelands Oil.
  • 1964 brought a filibuster focused on preventing civil rights legislation from being passed. Eventually, the Senators gathered enough votes to end the filibuster through cloture, bringing the issue to a vote. The vote passed, marking a significant step forward in how the Senate viewed and voted on civil rights issues.
  • In 1981, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire filibustered so long that he kept the Senate in session overnight! Although he didn’t break the previous records for length, he still managed to speak for over sixteen hours. His focus was on the rising national debt ceiling, and a primary purpose of his filibuster was to make sure the American public knew the national debt was about to pass one trillion dollars for the first time.

Pros of a Filibuster

The filibuster can be a powerful tool. It’s most often used by the minority party, although either party can use it without restrictions.

Delay Action on an Issue

One of the most common uses for a filibuster is to delay action on an issue. This delay allows more time for politicians (including the other Senators) to work on getting support or votes for a specific issue. The vote can’t be taken until the filibustering Senator cedes the floor and a vote is called, and the filibuster prevents this from happening.

Increase Public Awareness of an Issue

In our modern world, filibusters are also a powerful tool for drawing the public’s attention to a specific issue. News media reporters who cover the Senate report on filibusters, and their reports include the reason for the filibuster. This can help make the public more aware of important issues that may have otherwise gone unobserved and undiscussed.

Keep the Majority Party in Check

The minority party most often uses the filibuster as they have less control over Senate proceedings than the majority party. When the minority party uses a filibuster, they are taking control of the Senate proceedings and preventing other issues from being worked on during the duration of the filibuster.

Sometimes, the minority party can even use just the threat of a potential filibuster to gain sway with Senators in the majority party. These Senators may demonstrate a willingness for further meaningful debate, research, or discussion on an issue to prevent a filibuster that stalls all forward progress within the Senate, even on other non-related topics.

Empowering the minority party is an integral part of how the system of checks and balances is used in the US federal government to ensure that no one branch, political party, or person gains too much power that they can use to the detriment of others.

Shape Public Opinion

Since the media typically cover filibusters, they’re a powerful way to share information and shape public opinion on an issue. Although they can speak on any subject, many Senators will use their filibuster to share important information and research about the topic at hand. The public may not have been aware of the issue at all or may not have understood the details being reviewed and considered by the Senate.

Since most Senate proceedings are open to the public, they are often recorded and broadcast in their entirety, including when there is a filibuster. This allows the public to watch a Senator’s speech at their leisure, even if they’re busy during the filibuster itself. This is an excellent way for people to be more informed members of our society.

Cons of a Filibuster

In addition to the pros listed above, there are also quite a few cons to a filibuster. They’re often viewed as time-wasters and not taken seriously by either the other Senators or the American public.

Can Be Used for Political Gains

Can Be Used for Political Gains

Filibusters are often seen as a purely political tool used by a political party (primarily the minority party) to control the political narrative around an issue. Senators will sometimes use a filibuster simply to keep the media’s attention on them even when they aren’t saying anything meaningful.

It can be challenging to determine which filibusters are likely for political gain only and which ones are to raise awareness of specific issues. Usually, this can’t be determined until after the filibuster has ended and the legislation in question has been reviewed and voted on.

Slow the Progress of an Issue

Since filibusters have no time limit, they are a great way to slow down the progress on a specific issue. Furthermore, they can bring the entire proceedings of the Senate to a halt since no other issues can be discussed or voted on until the filibuster has ended.

Prevent a Vote From Taking Place

One of the most significant disadvantages of a filibuster is its ability to completely prevent a vote from occurring. This is partly due to the perception that Senators who use a filibuster are strong-willed individuals who won’t back down from a fight. This viewpoint can play a more prominent role for Senators who are up for re-election and thus are constantly considering how their constituents view them.

Has a History of Blocking Civil Rights Progress

The filibuster doesn’t have the best history when it comes to a review of civil rights legislation. It has been used as a tactic to completely prevent the vote from happening on legislative issues that dealt with civil rights, workers’ rights, and racial justice. Before 1964, many southern Senators used the filibuster to block civil rights legislation that included anti-lynching bills.

1964 brought the first time that the Senate was able to overcome a filibuster related to a civil rights bill. During this filibuster, West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd spoke for 14 hours and 34 minutes before the Senators gathered enough votes to end it with cloture. After it ended, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. This legislation included the protection of voting rights, banning discrimination in public facilities, and establishing equal employment rights.

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