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The filibuster refresher

Four years ago, I wrote a column on the filibuster. In view of recent developments calling for it to be abolished, I submit the following supplement as a “filibuster refresher.”

In the 1939 movie, “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” James Stewart played the role of a young United States senator who talked for almost 24 straight hours on the senate floor in order to delay a vote on a corrupt public works bill. His efforts introduced the movie going public to the “filibuster.”

This term comes to us from the Dutch word “vritbuiter” which means “pirate.” One interpretation is because a filibuster holds a legislative body hostage by its verbiage.

It has been defined as when a senator speaks or threatens to speak for hours on end to delay efforts to vote on a bill.

The filibuster dates back to Ancient Rome when its Senate did not limit how long senators could speak or debate.

Fast forward to the founding of the United States.

Although the filibuster is not part of the United States Constitution, the original rulebooks of both the House and the Senate provided for a simple majority vote to end one.

The House still has this rule, but in 1806, the Senate eliminated it and allowed filibusters to continue until the speaker was finished.

This practice continued for more than 100 years until March 8, 1917, when the Senate adopted Rule 22, which allowed a two-thirds majority vote of lawmakers to cut off debate. This is called “cloture” and was in response to a filibuster, which killed a World War I naval defense bill.

In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes needed for cloture to 60.

There is an exception to this rule called the “nuclear option,” which provides that all executive-branch cabinet appointments and judicial nominations can proceed in certain circumstances with a simple majority of 51 votes.

Finally, there is a “stealth” filibuster when at least 41 senators signal their intent to filibuster. This is enough to keep a bill off the floor without a senator saying a single word.

At this point in time, it appears that filibusters will be with us for the foreseeable future. If there is a change, it will be considered historic to say the least.

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