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
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
Filibustering is an important, if controversial,
part of our political process.