On April 6, 2017, the Republican-led U.S. Senate pushed through a rule change to stop a Democratic filibuster and confirm Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee. Everything about this process has been so drawn out and silly, with such little decorum and so much two-faced posturing on both sides, that it’s worth taking a (mercifully brief) look at how the filibuster started, how it was used, and why it now seems to be dying for good.
The Filibuster in Theory and Practice
Officially, the filibuster is a Senate procedure that protects the minority party from being stepped over by the majority party. This is either a noble attempt to forge broad consensus or a shameful waste of time, depending on whether your party is currently in the majority.
The Senate was always conceived of as a place where the wealthy, genteel folks in American politics could get together and chart the country’s course. Unlike the House, where contentious matters are often decided by leg wrestling and “Yo’ Momma” competitions, the Senate allows each member unlimited time for comment on every vote, on the theory that such distinguished gentlemen would never abuse this liberty.
Instant Abuse and Low Comedy
The first time a filibuster got rolled out was in 1841 when the Senate tried to hire some printers to handle some of its chores in-house. That triggered a filibuster that lasted six days, during which rotating teams of senators refused to yield their speaking time. It must have felt like a surreal experience to the other members—until a few months later, when a banking bill from Henry Clay got the same treatment for 14 days .
The filibuster got sillier and less dignified with the passing decades. In 1935, Senator Huey Long of Louisiana filibustered for 15 hours to prevent his political enemies from getting plush jobs in a New Deal program. To fill the time, he read (among other things) the entire text of the Constitution, several of Shakespeare’s plays and a few of his favorite oyster recipes. During Strom Thurmond’s record-breaking 24-hour filibuster against a 1948 Civil Rights act, the gentleman from South Carolina read off the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Criminal Code and the voting laws of all 48 states. It is said he relieved himself by leaving one foot in the Senate chamber and urinating in a mason jar in the hallway, which an aide then had to empty.
The process was later streamlined. By 2000, senators could effectively filibuster by handing the Majority Leader a note saying they planned to filibuster. This really simplified the process and allowed senators to waste time more efficiently than ever before.
When Senate Democrats tried to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination on April 6, 2017, the Republicans—who had just spent a year blocking the vote on Obama’s last nominee—shut the whole thing down by “going nuclear.” Invoking an arcane rule, the majority limited talking time and brought Gorsuch’s appointment to the floor for a straight up-or-down vote. It is not known whether this signals the death of the filibuster, but if so it may be hoped that some other sillier practice will soon come along to replace it.