The filibuster has been a tool available to U.S. Senators during Senate floor discussions on legislation and appointments since U.S. Constitution was ratified. Both Democratic and Republican parties have valued filibuster as a means to bring compromise and bipartisanship to bitter and divisive debates.
The word, filibuster, as it applies to American political process refers to a political delaying tactic such as a long speech used by politicians to delay or prevent passage of legislation. The older meaning of filibuster refers to illegal act of plundering or piracy; of capturing a ship and its cargo and holding it for ransom.
The etymology of word, filibuster, seems to date back to about 1560-1570 when English anglicized Dutch word, vrijbutier, into freebooter. A freebooter is understood to be a person who goes in search of plunder; a pirate, a buccaneer. Shortly thereafter, French adopted filibustier and Spanish adopted filibustero to mean same thing. In 17th century English transformed Spanish word into filibuster to describe actions of pirates who attacked Spanish explorers of New World. In 1800’s Americans popularized word filibuster, referring to activities of famous pirates operating in Latin America and Caribbean.
Filibuster as Piracy
From 1830 to 1860 countries of Cuba, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua were all victims of various filibuster campaigns. The filibusters were led by groups of adventurers who, without consent of American Government, but with aid of private American finance, tried to seize political power in these Latin American and Caribbean countries. Part of aim of filibuster campaigns was to empower population of these countries and bring forth a revolution that would be beneficial to American interests, mainly slave trade.
Financial support for filibusters came largely from southern states where parades of celebration were held in their honor and songs were written about their adventures. Officially, U.S. did not support filibuster campaigns because military was spread too thin to be able to provide adequate enforcement of laws against involvement. Many citizens saw campaigns as an aspect of “manifest destiny,” idea that America had a right to unlimited expansion.
A couple of famous filibusterers include Narciso Lopez and William Walker. Lopez liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule and attempted three times to liberate Cuba. Walker, from Tennessee, annexed parts of Mexico, including Lower California, and declared himself to be president. The U.S. government did not support Walker and eventually brought him to trial.
The era of Filibuster Movement ended when U.S. Civil War started. Attention and resources were given to defense of North and South, ending efforts of filibuster campaigns.
Filibuster as a Political Tool
During period from 1840 to 1860, numerous Southern politicians made long speeches during Senate floor debates on legislation bills for purpose of delaying bill or preventing a vote on bill. The word filibuster was borrowed to describe these speeches, which were thought of as piracy of time and opportunity. Henry Clay, in 1841, gave what is considered to be first filibuster speech.
As debate over slavery issue became more important in Congress, southern politicians used tactic of long dilatory speeches to block all civil rights legislation. The word filibuster became popularized during this pre-Civil War period.
The U.S. Constitution did not give direction to House of Representatives or to Senate regarding how to conduct everyday business and how to conduct debates on floor. Each body was expected to create and adopt their own rules.
On day 2 of first Senate meeting a special committee was created to "prepare a system of rules for conducting business." A few days later, on April 7, 1789, special committee filed their first rules report and on April 16, 1789, Senate adopted their first set of rules. The first set contained 19 rules and on April 18 number 20 was adopted. At this point special committee was disbanded.
The rules committee was recreated on several occasions during succeeding years for purpose of creating new rules or revising existing rules. Since 1789 there have been 7 adoptions of new or revised rules; in 1806, 1820, 1828, 1877, 1884, and 1979. Some rules have been amended and passed by Senate without going to a committee. The change to Rule XXII in 1917 to provide for a cloture procedure is a good example. There currently are a total of 43 Standing Rules of Senate.
The House Rules and Manual of U.S. House of Representatives does not allow for filibuster speeches. Each Representative is allowed to hold floor to debate a question for one hour and may only speak once on each question. The House is a large body and members thought it wise to limit amount of time that a Representative may speak.
The Senate is an entirely different situation, however.
Senate Rule XIX
Rule XIX is key rule that provides a structure for debate on Senate floor. A key provision of rule states that when a Senator rises to seek recognition during floor debate, he or she is guaranteed a chance to speak on question for as long as he or she wishes. The presiding officer is not given discretion in this matter and must recognize each Senator in order. During period of time that a recognized Senator is speaking question before Senate cannot come to a vote. The Senator cannot be interrupted or be forced to stop their speech without their consent.