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Charles B. Sears Law Library SUNY Buffalo Law School

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Filibuster Goes Bust?

Posted on: | by Christine Anne George |


Some say that Mr. Smith did it best when he went to Washington, but I think that West Wing did a better job of showing a filibuster in action. But neither Jimmy Stewart nor Martin Sheen have anything to do with the current drama playing out over the most long-winded of speeches.

There is a federal case being heard today that claims the filibuster is unconstitutional and goes against majority rule. The suit was filed in May by Democratic members of the House as well as three undocumented immigrants, Erika Andiola, Celso Mireles, and Caesar Vargas. In particular the suit addresses the repeated filibustering of the Dream Act.

Coming from the Dutch word for pirate, a filibuster is a parliamentary procedure to delay or completely stop a vote. The idea was that every member of Congress should be allowed unlimited debate on an issue (though there are certain rules that apply). However, as the House of Representatives grew in size and unlimited debate could become indefinite, the House rules were revised to remove that particular debating option. The Senate was (and still is) allowed to filibuster at will, but in 1917 senators adopted Rule 22 which introduced cloture, a device that could bust a filibuster as long as there was a two-thirds majority vote. (The Senate reduced the required number from two-thirds (67) to three-fifths (60) in 1957).

Filibusters have appeared in key moments throughout U.S. history, from opponents of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 or the Civil Rights Acts in 1957 and 1963. Strom Thurmond holds the record for the longest filibuster (24 hours and 18 minutes) in his stand against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. But when thinking of the filibuster, many can’t help but invoke Huey P. Long who held the floor with Shakespeare recitations and recipe readings during the 1930s.

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