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On Wednesday, May 20th, 2015, US Senator Rand

Paul began a ten-hour speech on the Senate

floor, which many referred to as a “filibuster”.

The long debate centered on the topic of NSA

spying and was intended to delay the upcoming

extension of the Patriot Act.

What is a filibuster in congress

But besides garnering media attention, filibusters

seem like a waste of time.

So what is a filibuster?

Well, that’s exactly what they are: a waste

of time.

Basically, a filibuster is any procedural

action that delays a vote in the Senate.

The most well known examples of filibusters

are when a senator, or group of senators,

takes the Senate floor for a speech and does

not yield it until three-fifths of the senate

agree to end the filibuster.

What this essentially means is that instead

of a bill passing by a simple majority of

51, any senator can pause a bill’s passage

until 60 senators agree to end the filibuster.

This is called a “cloture” (KLOH-cher).

Filibusters are particularly useful for bills

that are expected to pass by a narrow margin,

or which are especially controversial.

However, a senator does not actually have

to take the floor, or even make themselves

known in order to start a filibuster.

Just the threat of a filibuster is enough

to force a vote to see if they can gather

a potential cloture, or 60 senators, to oppose


If a senator does decide to take the floor,

there are a few rules they must follow for

the filibuster to be considered active.

They have to stay standing the whole time,

and can’t leave the Senate floor.

They also can’t consume anything except

for water or milk, and can’t leave to go

to the bathroom.

The only way to catch a break is to yield

time to a supporting Senator who will in turn

ask a long question, while the original senator

takes care of personal business.

One example of a successful filibuster was

in 1946, when a number of senators delayed

the passage of an anti-discrimination bill,

and the bill’s supporters were unable to

gather enough senators to call for a cloture.

This meant that the only way to end the filibuster

and get back to work was to drop the bill

from consideration, so the bill was abandoned.

Another example, and perhaps the most famous,

was when South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond

took the floor for more than 24 hours against

the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

Despite being the longest individual filibuster

ever, the bill still ended up passing after

he was done.

Now, technically, because Senator Paul ended

his speech before midnight, it wasn’t actually

a filibuster because it didn’t delay any

Senate business and wasn’t during a debate

about the Patriot Act itself.

May 20th was a waiting period for a trade

agreement, so no actual business was disrupted.

However, in terms of garnering media attention

and cementing a talking point for the 2016

elections, this filibuster certainly served

it’s purpose.

Filibustering is an important, if controversial,

part of our political process.

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