Piracy in the Senate

Let’s talk about the filibuster.

For those who don’t follow the minutiae of the United States Congress, the filibuster is essentially a very long speech that interrupts the business of the Congress and prevents items from reaching the floor for a vote. The word itself comes from the Spanish/Portuguese term for pirate, ‘filibusteros.’ This procedure was allowed under both Senate and House of Representatives rules until the House enacted time limits in 1842. The Senate still allows it today.

Originally, filibusters could not be stopped (until the speaker got tired and stopped on his own). In 1917, the Senate changed its rules to allow a ‘cloture’ (a forced end to debate) with a 2/3 super-majority of 67 Senators. That proved difficult to attain, and the rules were changed again in 1975 to reduce the requirement to a 3/5 super-majority of 60 Senators.

Perhaps most memorably, southern Democrats in the Senate repeatedly used the filibuster to halt civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 60s. Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC) set the filibuster record in 1957 by speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes to halt the Civil Rights Act of 1957. (Before you try to correct me, remember that Senator Thurmond did not become a Republican until 1964.)

Today, the filibuster is perhaps most-often used to halt the presidential appointment of judges to the federal judiciary. Republicans frustrated with the Democratic Party’s recent obstructionism have threatened to limit filibusters regarding judicial nominations, but Democrats claim that the filibuster is a powerful and important check on the power of the majority party.


Whether the filibuster is used to block civil rights legislation or to prevent the Senate from fulfilling its ‘advise and consent’ duties with presidential nominees, it is anti-democratic. It allows the minority party to effectively veto legislation when that legislation might have easily passed if brought to a floor vote. Both parties have abused the filibuster privilege (especially in the last half-century), and that is why I support the so-called ‘nuclear option’ to limit and/or prohibit filibusters entirely. I do not support this change to bolster the Republican Party (after all, the Republicans will be the minority party again some day), I support it to bolster democracy.

The Senate’s responsibility is to pass or not pass legislation by simple majority, and the filibuster stands in the way of the Senate properly fulfilling that responsibility. We elect our Senators (and pay them handsomely) to pass legislation that is good for this country, not to talk for 24 hours in an effort to stop said legislation. As their bosses, we (the taxpayers and voters) should demand that they do something a little more constructive with their time on-the-clock.

Democrats have claimed that Republicans merely want to stifle debate. Perhaps that is their goal, but that’s not what they’ll accomplish. The House of Representatives enacted debate limits in 1842, and anybody who’s watched C-SPAN is well aware that there’s plenty of debate going on over there. The Senate, being a smaller body, should give more time to each Senator than is given to Representatives in the House, but allowing unlimited debate is simply silly. What the Republicans may accomplish with the ‘nuclear option’ is the creation of a more efficient Senate.

The filibuster is not a constitutional right; it is a creation of archaic Senate rules that the Senate has not only the right but the responsibility to remove. A minority party—whichever party may be in the minority at the time—should never have the right to obstruct the business of the Senate. If anything, the Republicans who have threatened to limit debate have not gone far enough. The proposed changes to Senate rules would only limit debate on judicial nominees—an improvement, but only a half-measure. It’s time to reevaluate the filibuster as a whole.

Our government should not operate by loopholes and piracy; the Senate should debate the issues for a reasonable length of time and then vote on them. Since members of both parties lack the decorum to do this on their own, it is time to codify it in Senate rules.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.