On July 17th, Tanner Ringerud and Gavon Laessig posted an article titled Senate Filibustering As Explained By “Mean Girls.” This was genius.
I mean, how many times can you use Mean Girls to flawlessly explain political situations and parliamentary procedures?
Maybe you read this article and had an “aha” moment, where suddenly it all made sense to you.
Or maybe you thought that it was a great idea and a funny article but felt like it left you with a few unanswered questions.
This might be because you lack some of the basic information you need to fully understand the “nuclear option.” This post is meant to further your awareness on the topic of senate filibustering and help clear any confusion.
6. So what is a filibuster?
A filibuster is a procedure where a debate is extended to either delay or prevent a vote on a given proposal. During filibusters, senators take advantage of the Senate’s rules allowing indefinite debate. Basically, if a senator doesn’t want a certain proposal to pass, he or she can just keep talking forever, about any topic, so that the vote never even happens.
7. Any topic?
The senator doesn’t even have to talk about anything related to the matter at hand. He or she can literally recite Shakespeare.
8. But why?
One of the oldest and most sacred traditions of the Senate is the principle of “unlimited debate.”
9. How long can they actually talk?
Senators can talk as long as they want, unless 3/5 of the senators voting agree to invoke a cloture.
10. What is a cloture?
Cloture: The only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster. Under the cloture rule (Rule XXII), the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by vote of three-fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes.
11. Wait, did you catch that?
Three-fifths of the senators voting have to agree to end a filibuster. Only a simple majority is required to pass the bill itself!
So 60 of 100 senators have to agree to even vote on a proposal that would only require 51 of the senators votes to pass.
13. But there are rules:
Once you start talking, you can’t sit down.
No eating, and you can only drink water or milk.
You can’t leave the Senate floor at all. Not even for bathroom breaks.
17. Do filibusters actually ever happen?
Strom Thurmond holds the record for the longest filibuster, speaking for 24 hours straight in an effort to block the Civil Rights Act in 1957. He eventually ran out of things to talk about and actually started reading from a telephone book!
Alfonse D’Amato took the floor to protest Smith Corona’s decision to shift typewriter manufacturing jobs from New York to Mexico in 1992.
Wendy Davis filibustered for 11 hours June 25, 2013, to block a bill that would implement rigid abortion regulations in Texas.
21. So what good is a filibuster?
The Senate minority’s ability to have any influence relies on its right to an unlimited debate. Political scientist Gregory Koger, an expert on the filibuster, explains that “the majority and minority party haggle over the process for debating major legislation to ensure that members of both parties are able to deliberate fully. Without the minority party’s power to filibuster, it is likely that the majority party in the Senate would be no more generous than its counterpart in the House.”
And that’s why the threat of a “nuclear option” is…well…a threat.