Election Season: What Does Filibuster Mean?

The U.S. Capitol Building, where the Senate meets. Photo Courtesy: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg/Getty Images

You don’t have to follow United States politics for very long before you come across the strange term “filibuster” in your reading. A verb that’s come to refer to obstructing the passing of legislation, filibuster — both as a word and as an action — has a long, circuitous history involving everything from 17th-century piracy to long-winded speeches in the U.S. Senate.

The practice of the filibuster has been in the news most recently as some Democrats have called for abolishing it in order to pass otherwise-stalled legislation on abortion rights and gun control. No doubt, we’ll be continuing to hear about the filibuster a lot through the upcoming U.S. election cycle and beyond. So, what exactly are the origins of the filibuster, and what are its implications now? Let’s take a look.

Where Did We Get the Word “Filibuster”?

The origins of the term are piratical. The English term — originally “flee-booters,” but over time it gained another syllable — comes from words of Dutch, French and Spanish origin that all refer to the actions of pirate raiders who’d steal “booty” from ships and colonies. 

Spanish Gunboat chasing Pensicola Filibusterer Monarch in Cuban waters in 1898. Detail from a painting by R. D. Wilcox. Image courtesy: Charles Henry Bliss/Wikimedia Commons

The word didn’t take on an overtly political denotation until the 1850s, when it started to be used to to describe Americans who “engaged in fomenting insurrections in Latin America in the mid-19th century,” according to Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary. Pretty soon, those political applications of the term expanded to describe the practice of stalling — often through the use of long, rambling speeches — in order to prevent legislative action. 

It wasn’t long before the word’s political meaning became the dominant one. As early as the 1870s, the term was being used as a noun, naming a person who made these kinds of (seemingly) endless, stalling speeches. As with many words that undergo changes over time, tracing the word back through its history reveals why the term evolved the way it did. The generally negative connotation the term carries now makes sense when you consider its origins in acts of piracy on the high seas. 

What’s the History of the Filibuster in the U.S. Senate?

In practice, “filibuster” now refers to an attempt to prevent a piece of legislation from being officially voted on in the Senate. Originally, all it took to cut off debate on a bill and bring that bill to a vote was a motion that could pass with a simple majority. In 1805, however, Vice President Aaron Burr — most famous these days for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 — argued that the rule was unnecessary and redundant. The following year, the Senate got rid of the motion. 

The unintended consequence of this was that it created the long-standing Senate tradition of unlimited debate. Basically, senators could prevent a bill’s being voted on simply by continuing the debate over that bill — indefinitely. If this seems like the kind of thing that might get folks pretty riled up, that’s because it definitely did. Throughout the 1800s, there were demands for “cloture” or a way of ending debate and bringing a question to a vote. 

Henry Clay, seen here in a portrait from 1843, was known as “The Great Compromiser,” but even he struggled against the filibuster. Image Courtesy: Theodore Sydney Moise/Wikimedia Commons

For example, in 1841, the Democrats, who were in the minority in the Senate at the time, filibustered to prevent a vote on a bill to create a national bank. When Henry Clay of the Whig party threatened to change the rules of the Senate to end the debate, the Democrat William King of Alabama suggested that Clay “make his arrangements at his boarding house for the [entire] winter.” Which is to say, King planned on filibustering indefinitely. 

By the early 1900s, the act of filibustering was happening enough that it was creating major problems. There was so much work to do in a Senate session that filibustering senators could often get concessions simply out of desperation from senators who were trying to get bills passed. Finally in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson urged the Senate to pass a bill that would allow cloture with a two-thirds majority, and the Senate obliged.

Getting a two-thirds majority of the Senate to agree on anything, however, wasn’t so easy. In fact, over the next few decades, it hardly ever happened, and during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, southern senators managed to filibuster to prevent civil rights legislation from getting passed. Eventually, in 1975, enough senators agreed to change the amount of votes needed to end a filibuster from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of the 100 senators. That’s where the rule stands today.

The “Nuclear Option” and Current Opposition to the Filibuster

Members of both the Democratic and Republican parties have, at certain points over the past decade, invoked what has been called the “Nuclear Option” against the filibuster in the Senate. The Senate’s procedural rules are not stipulated in the Constitution, so Senate procedure can be changed by senators at any time. The so-called Nuclear Option is a way for a majority party to push legislation through to a vote with a simple majority in the Senate (51 senators). The extreme — and troubling — name refers to the idea that doing this too often could blow up senatorial procedure, so to speak.

The Nuclear Option has happened twice over the past decade — once by each major party. In 2013, the Democrats used it to make it possible to push through Cabinet appointments and other Executive Branch appointments, including federal judges below the level of the Supreme Court, during President Barack Obama’s term. Democrats did this because Republican filibustering was making it impossible to proceed with these cabinet appointments. Four years later, Republicans invoked the Nuclear Option during the Trump administration to push through several Supreme Court nominees.

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) leaving the Senate chamber following a vote in November of 2021. Photo Courtesy: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images 

These precedents are part of why the filibuster is in the news now. With the Senate and the two major political parties in the U.S. currently deeply divided, making progress on legislation is getting more and more impossible. Democrats who want to see voting rights, abortion rights and gun safety legislation passed are increasingly demanding that the filibuster come to an end so that votes can proceed with just a simple majority. 

Currently, moderate Democratic senators, like Joe Manchin (of West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (of Arizona), are refusing to back down from supporting the continuation of the filibuster and the requirement of a three-fifths majority to bring legislation to a vote. No doubt, these debates will continue on through the upcoming election cycle — and into the future, much the way they have in the U.S. Senate for over 200 years.