The word ‘filibuster’ may sound complicated but it is actually a simple term to understand. The filibuster is a vital part of policymaking in American politics and has been used for almost 200 years.
This Cheat Sheet will explain what exactly a filibuster is, why it is used, and its advantages and disadvantages.
What is a filibuster?
A filibuster is a prolonged speech used to delay and block the progress of a law. In the US, the filibuster is used in the Senate as only Senators have the right to unlimited debate.
Senators using the filibuster can talk about any topic for as long as they wish, or until 60 out of the 100 Senators vote to end it, using what is called a ‘cloture motion’. The record for the longest filibuster was set in 1957, when Strom Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes to block a vote on civil rights legislation.
Why is the filibuster used?
The filibuster gives the minority party considerable power to oppose laws that they disagree with. A simple majority of 51 votes is needed to pass a law in the Senate, meaning they are highly likely to have enough votes to pass any law. However, the minority does not have sufficient votes to block or vote down laws – so the majority party can force through legislation with relatively little opposition.
If the minority party wishes to stop a law from being passed, they can use the filibuster to delay or block a vote. In recent years there has been a near 50-50 split between the parties in the Senate, and so the 60-vote threshold to end a filibuster is becoming difficult to reach.
If the majority party is unable to reach the 60-vote threshold to end the filibuster, they may compromise on their bill so that the minority party will not filibuster it, or they could decide to abandon the bill entirely.
Advantages and disadvantages of the filibuster
The major advantage of the filibuster is that it forces compromise – the majority party must work with the minority to amend their proposed bill so that it appeals to the opposition, thereby passing laws that are widely accepted.
Fewer laws are passed – the 60-vote threshold to end the filibuster is not easily met in a divided political system. Only the most non-controversial laws may pass without delay, which could prevent the majority party from passing laws that people voted for.
It doesn’t always block a bill, so it could be a huge waste of time – Strom Thurmond’s record-breaking filibuster did not stop civil rights provisions from being passed.
It may lead to the president or Supreme Court making laws instead, even though this is the role that members of Congress are elected to fulfil, because they are unable to pass laws themselves.
With heightened party polarisation, the filibuster increasingly serves as a method to block meaningful laws. Some politicians have suggested new limits on the filibuster to end political gridlock – the Senate could use the ‘nuclear option’, which is the procedure of holding a vote to abolish the filibuster.
This would reduce delays when voting on bills, allowing Congress to use its time more productively and fulfil its role to pass laws, but would be highly controversial . The only certainty is that the filibuster will continue to be a powerful tool and remain a vital part of policymaking in the US.
For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated US Politics section.
Edited by Alex Leggett