Understanding Filibusters

Sep 29, 2013

Donald Ritchie presenting his lecture “Why in the World Does the Senate Put Up with Filibusters?” at Williams College.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

While Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s recent 21-hour talk on the Senate floor wasn’t a filibuster, the parliamentary procedure is certainly a unique part of our nation’s political workings.

As Director of the Senate Historical Office, Donald Ritchie has written many books on Congress and its inner workings. He gave a lecture this week at Williams College titled, “Why in the World Does the Senate Put Up with Filibusters?” He spoke about the history of filibusters dating back to the country’s First Congress.

“At one point Senator Maclay complains that some of his colleagues were trying to talk a bill to death,” Ritchie said. “In fact, if they hadn’t talked that bill to death, the U.S. Capitol today would be on the Susquehanna about where Harrisburg is rather than the Potomac where Washington is.”

Ritchie explains attempts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill have been done by both political parties over a wide range of topics. These stretch from a bank bill in 1841, to a bill that would arm American merchant ships prior to the First World War, and the New Deal programs of the Great Depression. Ritchie called out the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 as the “granddaddy of filibusters,” pushed by President Lyndon Johnson and met with minority opposition from a team of southern Senators. Over the course of 57 days, the southerners attempted to wear down the majority, who had to have 51 Senators present.

“Roger Mudd of CBS was conducting daily broadcasts from the Capitol steps every single day the debate was going on,” Ritchie said. “To show how long it went, it was snowing on the first day that he spoke and it was over 100 degrees on the last day.”

Ritchie says while Mudd became a media star and a tourist attraction, the lengthy debate was also educating the public.

“The southerners realized that because he was giving so much attention to it that the public now understood what was happening and they were getting antsy and wanted the debate to be ended,” he said. “It was actually working against them. The southerners said to the Capitol police, Roger Mudd is creating a fire hazard because he’s blocking the entrance to the Capitol, we can’t get in and out. So the police moved him across the street.”

Ritchie says with so many issues being discussed on Capitol Hill day in and day out, a filibuster or a lengthy talk is a way to draw attention to one specific topic.

“There’s nothing like an all-night session of the Senate to draw media attention, not just in the United States, but all around the world,” Ritchie said. “What is this? Nobody else allows people to stand up all night long and speak. What is he trying to accomplish? Is this Mr. Smith? Has he gone back to Washington? It’s naturally a great story.”

Ritchie argues the Senate, in which each person has equal voting power and ability to hold the floor for as long as he or she can talk regardless of the number of citizens he or she represents, is democracy in action. Despite the belief that a talkathon is inaction and prevents the majority from acting, Ritchie says the structured rules of the one-hundred member Senate force bi-partisanship, as the majority relies on support from the minority to move a bill or cloture along with a two-thirds vote. He says that’s not the case in the much larger, constituent driven House of Representatives. 

“The leadership of the House never wants to be seen as being weak and dependent on the minority party,” said Ritchie.

David Shufelt is Williams alum and sat in on the lecture.

“In terms of democracy versus the country being a republic, that question wasn’t really answered in my mind in terms of how the filibuster is supposed to make the country work,” said Shufelt.

Shufelt says the public can be easily drawn into filibusters or lengthy speeches that often turn into spectacles. 

“A lot of people are hesitant to speak in the first place in public and then to think about doing it for such a long period of time,” Shufelt said. “There’s not only the fear factor of talking for so long, but thinking about well if I actually had the courage to do it, what would I talk about for all of that time.”