A filibuster is a parliamentary procedure where one or more members of Parliament or Congress debate over a proposed piece of legislation to delay or entirely prevent a decision being made on the proposal. It is sometimes referred to as "talking a bill to death" or "talking out a bill" and is characterized as a form of obstruction in a legislature or other decision-making body.
This form of political obstruction reaches as far back as Ancient Roman times and could also be referred to synonymously with political stonewalling. Due to the often extreme length of time required for a successful filibuster, many speakers stray off-topic after exhausting the original subject matter. US Senators have, for example, read through laws from different states and recited past speeches and recipes.
The ultimate source for filibuster is certainly Dutch vribuyter (now vrijbuiter) 'robber', 'pirate', 'plunderer', from vribuyt 'plunder' (16th c.), from vrij 'free' + buyt 'booty', 'loot'. However, the intermediate history is complicated, because several languages have influenced each other reciprocally. Intermediate links may be English freebooter (1598), a loan translation of the Dutch equivalent, and flibutor (1587): with an -r- altered in an -l- that may have been the result of dissimilation, typical for liquid consonants. This alteration may have occurred in English, or first in a foreign language before it entered English.
In French, flibutier (1666) appeared, next to fribustier (1667) and flibustier (1666) with a hyper corrected -s- inserted. The -s- was originally not pronounced and was purely graphic. This was in 17th century French a common misunderstanding, that followed the analogy of words with -st- in which the original -s- was retained in spelling, though had become silent in pronunciation (such as Middle French maistre 'master', now maître). At the beginning of the 18th century, the -s- in flibustier ended up being pronounced, after the analogy of other words with -st- with pronounced -s- in French.
The Spanish form filibustero (17th c.), can only be an accommodation of the French flibustier; now with the -i- inserted in the first syllable, to match Spanish phonology, and with the -s- pronounced. Originally, it applied to French, Dutch, and English privateers and buccaneers infesting the Spanish American coasts, with whom Spain was constantly at war. However, it was later applied to the military expeditions of Narciso López in Cuba, who fomented a revolution, and liberated the island from Spanish rule.
It designated the followers of American adventurer William Walker who, influenced by López, launched several filibustering campaigns in former Spanish colonies in Central America, and so the definition became specifically "an American engaged in fomenting insurrections in Latin America in the mid-19th century" (1851). Subsequently, the word entered American political slang with the meaning "to obstruct or delay legislation by dilatory motions or other artifices" (1861).
The commonly assumed metonymic relation that explains filibuster from Spanish filibote, (from French flibot, from English flyboat, calqued from Dutch vlieboot 'coasting vessel', from vlie 'shallow river estuary' + boot 'boat') is anachronistic and has no support either in form or in historical fact, since the introduction of the 'Spanish' -i- happened not before, but after the introduction of the 'French' -s-. However, pirates have used this vessel frequently, because of its shallow draught, that enabled them to swiftly navigate the seas and then escape to the shallower shores. Hence, it may have been possible that either flibot, flyboat or vlieboot, the name for the vessel, had a metonymical influence on the fr-fl dissimilation in freebooter, the pre-existing name for the user of such vessel.
One of the first known practitioners of the filibuster was the Roman senator Cato the Younger. Cato would obstruct a measure by speaking continuously until nightfall. As the Roman Senate had a rule requiring all business to conclude by dusk, Cato's long-winded speeches could forestall a vote.
Cato attempted to use the filibuster at least twice to frustrate the political objectives of Julius Caesar. The first incident occurred during the summer of 60 BCE, when Caesar was returning home from his propraetorship in Hispania Ulterior. Caesar, as a result of his military victories over the raiders and bandits in Hispania, had been awarded a triumph (Roman victory celebration) by the Senate. Having recently turned forty, Caesar had also become eligible to stand for consul. This posed a dilemma. Roman generals honored with a triumph were not allowed to enter the city prior to the ceremony, but candidates for the consulship were required, by law, to appear in person at the Forum. The date of the election, which had already been set, made it impossible for Caesar to stand unless he crossed the pomerium and gave up the right to his triumph. Caesar petitioned the Senate to stand in absentia, but Cato employed a filibuster to block the proposal. Faced with the choice between a triumph and the consulship, Caesar chose the consulship and entered the city.
Cato made use of the filibuster again in 59 BCE in response to a land reform bill sponsored by Caesar, who was then consul. When it was Cato's time to speak during the debate, he began one of his characteristically long-winded speeches. Caesar, who needed to pass the bill before his co-consul, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, took possession of the fasces at the end of the month, immediately recognized Cato's intent and ordered the lictors to jail him for the rest of the day. The move was unpopular with many senators and Caesar, realizing his mistake, soon ordered Cato's release. The day was wasted without the Senate ever getting to vote on a motion supporting the bill, but Caesar eventually circumvented Cato's opposition by taking the measure to the Tribal Assembly, where it passed.
In the Parliament of the United Kingdom, a bill defeated by a filibustering manoeuvre may be said to have been "talked out". The procedures of the House of Commons require that members cover only points germane to the topic under consideration or the debate underway whilst speaking. Example filibusters in the Commons and Lords include:
The all-time Commons record for non-stop speaking, six hours, was set by Henry Brougham in 1828, though this was not a filibuster. The 21st century record was set on December 2, 2005 by Andrew Dismore, Labour MP for Hendon. Dismore spoke for three hours and 17 minutes to block a Conservative Private Member's Bill, the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Protection of Property) Bill, which he claimed amounted to "vigilante law". Although Dismore is credited with speaking for 197 minutes, he regularly accepted interventions from other MPs who wished to comment on points made in his speech. Taking multiple interventions artificially inflates the duration of a speech and thus may be used as a tactic to prolong a speech.
In local unitary authorities of England a motion may be carried into closure by filibustering. This results in any additional motions receiving less time for debate by Councillors instead forcing a vote by the Council under closure rules.
A notable filibuster took place in the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1936 when Tommy Henderson (Independent Unionist MP for Shankill) spoke for nine and a half hours (ending just before 4 am) on the Appropriation Bill. As this Bill applied government spending to all departments, almost any topic was relevant to the debate, and Henderson used the opportunity to list all of his many criticisms of the Unionist government.
Since both houses of the Australian Parliament have strictly enforced rules on how long members may speak, filibusters are generally not possible, though this is not the case in some state Parliaments.
The Museum of Australian Democracy identifies the last filibuster at the federal level to be a 12-hour long speech (including interruptions) by Senator Albert Gardiner in 1918, in which he read the entire Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, to which the Labor Party was opposed because it introduced preferential voting.
In opposition, Tony Abbott's Liberal National coalition used suspension of standing orders in 2012 for the purposes of talking at length on political issues, most commonly during question time against the Labor government. However, the suspension of standing orders was not intended to delay or stop the passage of legislation, as with a traditional filibuster.
In August 2000, New Zealand opposition parties National and ACT delayed the voting for the Employment Relations Bill by voting slowly, and in some cases in M?ori (which required translation into English).
In 2009, several parties staged a filibuster of the Local Government (Auckland Reorganisation) Bill in opposition to the government setting up a new Auckland Council under urgency and without debate or review by select committee, by proposing thousands of wrecking amendments and voting in M?ori as each amendment had to be voted on and votes in M?ori translated into English. Amendments included renaming the council to "Auckland Katchafire Council" or "Rodney Hide Memorial Council" and replacing the phrase "powers of a regional council" with "power and muscle".
The Rajya Sabha (Council of states) - which is the upper house in the bicameral Parliament of India - allows for a debate to be brought to a close with a simple majority decision of the house, on a closure motion so introduced by any member. On the other hand, the Lok Sabha (House of the people) - the lower house - leaves the closure of the debate to the discretion of the speaker, once a motion to end the debate is moved by a member.
A dramatic example of filibustering in the House of Commons of Canada took place between Thursday June 23, 2011 and Saturday June 25, 2011. In an attempt to prevent the passing of Bill C-6, which would have legislated the imposing of a four-year contract and pay conditions on the locked out Canada Post workers, the New Democratic Party (NDP) led a filibustering session which lasted for fifty-eight hours. The NDP argued that the legislation in its then form undermined collective bargaining. Specifically, the NDP opposed the salary provisions and the form of binding arbitration outlined in the bill.
The House was supposed to break for the summer Thursday June 23, but remained open in an extended session due to the filibuster. The 103 NDP MPs to delay the passing of the bill. MPs are allowed to give such speeches each time a vote takes place, and many votes were needed before the bill could be passed. As the Conservative Party of Canada held a majority in the House, the bill passed. This was the longest filibuster since the 1999 Reform Party of Canada filibuster, on native treaty issues in British Columbia.
Conservative Member of Parliament Tom Lukiwski is known for his ability to stall Parliamentary Committee business by filibustering. One such example occurred October 26, 2006, when he spoke for almost 120 minutes to prevent the House of Commons of Canada Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development from studying a private member's bill to implement the Kyoto Accord. He also spoke for about 6 hours on February 5, 2008 and February 7, 2008 at the House of Commons of Canada Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs meetings to block inquiry into allegations that the Conservative Party spent over the maximum allowable campaign limits during the 2006 election.
Another example of filibuster in Canada federally came in early 2014 when NDP MP and Deputy Leader David Christopherson filibustered the government's bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee. His filibuster lasted several meetings the last of which he spoke for over 8 hours and was done to support his own motion to hold cross country hearings on the bill so MPs could hear what the Canadian public thought of the bill. In the end, given that the Conservative government had a majority at committee, his motion was defeated and the bill passed although with some significant amendments.
The Legislature of the Province of Ontario has witnessed several significant filibusters, although two are notable for the unusual manner by which they were undertaken. The first was an effort on May 6, 1991, by Mike Harris, later premier but then leader of the opposition Progressive Conservatives, to derail the implementation of the budget tabled by the NDP government under premier Bob Rae. The tactic involved the introduction of Bill 95, the title of which contained the names of every lake, river and stream in the province. Between the reading of the title by the proposing MPP, and the subsequent obligatory reading of the title by the clerk of the chamber, this filibuster occupied the entirety of the day's session until adjournment. To prevent this particular tactic from being used again, changes were eventually made to the Standing Orders to limit the time allocated each day to the introduction of bills to 30 minutes.
A second high-profile and uniquely implemented filibuster in the Ontario Legislature occurred in April 1997, where the Ontario New Democratic Party, then in opposition, tried to prevent the governing Progressive Conservatives' Bill 103 from taking effect. To protest the Tory government's legislation that would amalgamate the municipalities of Metro Toronto into the "megacity" of Toronto, the small NDP caucus introduced 11,500 amendments to the megacity bill, created on computers with mail merge functionality. Each amendment would name a street in the proposed city, and provide that public hearings be held into the megacity with residents of the street invited to participate. The Ontario Liberal Party also joined the filibuster with a smaller series of amendments; a typical Liberal amendment would give a historical designation to a named street. The NDP then added another series of over 700 amendments, each proposing a different date for the bill to come into force.
The filibuster began on April 2 with the Abbeywood Trail amendment and occupied the legislature day and night, the members alternating in shifts. On April 4, exhausted and often sleepy government members inadvertently let one of the NDP amendments pass, and the handful of residents of Cafon Court in Etobicoke were granted the right to a public consultation on the bill, although the government subsequently nullified this with an amendment of its own. On April 6, with the alphabetical list of streets barely into the Es, Speaker Chris Stockwell ruled that there was no need for the 220 words identical in each amendment to be read aloud each time, only the street name. With a vote still needed on each amendment, Zorra Street was not reached until April 8. The Liberal amendments were then voted down one by one, eventually using a similar abbreviated process, and the filibuster finally ended on April 11.
An unusual example of filibustering occurred in March 2017, when the governing Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador had "nothing else to do in the House of Assembly" and debated between only themselves about their own interim supply bill, after both the Conservative and New Democratic Parties indicated they intended to vote in favour of the bill.
On 28 October 1897, Dr. Otto Lecher, Delegate for Brünn, spoke continuously for twelve hours before the Abgeordnetenhaus ("House of Delegates") of the Reichsrat ("Imperial Council") of Austria, to block action on the "Ausgleich" with Hungary, which was due for renewal. Mark Twain was present, and described the speech and the political context in his essay "Stirring Times in Austria".
In the Southern Rhodesia Legislative Assembly, Independent member Dr Ahrn Palley staged a similar filibuster against the Law and Order Maintenance Bill on 22 November 1960, although this took the form of moving a long series of amendments to the Bill, and therefore consisted of multiple individual speeches interspersed with comments from other Members. Palley kept the Assembly sitting from 8 PM to 12:30 PM the following day.
On December 16, 2010, Werner Kogler of the Austrian Green Party gave his speech before the budget committee, criticizing the failings of the budget and the governing parties (Social Democratic Party and Austrian People's Party) in the last years. The filibuster lasted for 12 hours and 42 minutes (starting at 13:18, and speaking until 2:00 in the morning), thus breaking the previous record held by his party-colleague Madeleine Petrovic (10 hours and 35 minutes on March 11, 1993), after which the standing orders had been changed, so speaking time was limited to 20 minutes. However, it didn't keep Kogler from giving his speech.
The filibuster is a powerful legislative device in the United States Senate. Senate rules permit a senator or senators to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless "three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn" (60 out of 100 senators) vote to bring debate to a close by invoking cloture under Senate Rule XXII. Even if a filibuster attempt is unsuccessful, the process takes floor time. Defenders call the filibuster "The Soul of the Senate".
The longest-ever single-Senator filibuster was Strom Thurmond's unsuccessful filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, lasting 24 hours and 18 minutes. The longest ever coordinated filibuster was the Southern Democrats' unsuccessful filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included participation from Richard Russell Jr., Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd, J. William Fulbright, and Sam Ervin. It lasted 60 days before Senate Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen gathered enough votes to end debate.
The filibuster is not codified by the US Constitution, but rather has been incorporated into Senate practice through the Standing Rules of the Senate. Prior to its formal codification, the first attempted instance of "talking a bill to death" took place during the first session of the Senate in 1789. It was first formally introduced with a change of Senate rules in 1806. Initially, a successful vote of cloture required unanimous approval by the Senate; this threshold was reduced to 2/3 of the chamber in 1917 as the filibuster gained wider use as a means of stymieing legislation. The first invocation of the reduced cloture threshold took place in 1919 as a means to end a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. Although seldom used over the next 4 decades, the filibuster was the most common tool wielded by southern Senators as a means to oppose a number pieces of Civil Rights legislation, such as anti-lynching laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the 1970s, the filibuster was changed again to reduce the number of votes required from 2/3 to 3/5 of the Senate.
Under Senate rules, any modification or limitation of the filibuster would require an amendment to Senate Rule 22, which would require two-thirds of those senators present and voting in favor of the amendment.
Under Senate procedure, a simple majority of senators can limit the applicability of the filibuster. The removal or substantial limitation of the filibuster by a simple majority, rather than a rule change, is colloquially called the nuclear option.
On November 21, 2013, the then-Democratic-controlled Senate exercised the nuclear option, in a 52-48 vote, to require only a majority vote to end a filibuster of all executive and judicial nominees, excluding Supreme Court nominees, rather than the 3/5 of votes previously required. On April 6, 2017, the Republican-controlled Senate did the same, in a 52-48 vote, to require only a majority vote to end a filibuster of Supreme Court nominees.
In the United States House of Representatives, the filibuster (the right to unlimited debate) was used until 1842, when a permanent rule limiting the duration of debate was created.
Minority party members subsequently used a disappearing quorum, where members would refuse to vote despite being present on the floor or walk out before a vote. At that time the quorum only counted those voting yea or nay as present, allowing the minority to make use of missing members to deny a vote. In 1890, after Republicans had taken control of Congress, Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed changed House rules to eliminate this by counting members who were present but not voting as present for a quorum. The 51st Congress, previously expected to be unproductive due to minority obstruction, accomplished passage of major legislation. This filibuster was reinstated in 1891 when control of the House flipped, but Reed's use of it forced its re-abolishment in 1893.
On February 7, 2018, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi set a record for the longest speech on the House floor, speaking for eight hours and seven minutes in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals: she took advantage of the fact that the Minority Leader is allowed to speak indefinitely without interruption.
Only 14 state legislatures have a filibuster:
In France, member of Parlement Christine Boutin spoke for five hours in the French National Assembly in November 1999 in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent or postpone the adoption of PACS, a contractual form of civil union open to homosexual couples, which she opposed.
In August 2006, the left-wing opposition submitted 137,449 amendments to the proposed law bringing the share in Gaz de France owned by the French state from 80% to 34% in order to allow for the merger between Gaz de France and Suez. Normal parliamentary procedure would require 10 years to vote on all the amendments.
The French constitution gives the government two options to defeat such a filibuster. The first one was originally the use of the article 49 paragraph 3 procedure, according to which the law was adopted except if a majority is reached on a non-confidence motion (a reform of July 2008 resulted in this power being restricted to budgetary measures only, plus one time each ordinary session - i.e. from October to June - on any bill. Before this reform, article 49, 3 was frequently used, especially when the government was short a majority in the Assemblée nationale to support the text but still enough to avoid a non-confidence vote). The second one is the article 44 paragraph 3 through which the government can force a global vote on all amendments it did not approve or submit itself.
In the end, the government did not have to use either of those procedures. As the parliamentary debate started, the left-wing opposition chose to withdraw all the amendments to allow for the vote to proceed. The "filibuster" was aborted because the privatisation of Gaz de France appeared to have little opposition amongst the general population. It also appeared that this privatisation law could be used by the left-wing in the presidential election of 2007 as a political argument. Indeed, Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP - the right wing party), Interior Minister, former Finance Minister and campaigning for President, had previously promised that the share owned by the French government in Gaz de France would never go below 70%.
The first incidence of filibuster in the Legislative Council (LegCo) after the Handover occurred during the second reading of the Provision of Municipal Services (Reorganization) Bill in 1999, which aimed at dissolving the partially elected Urban Council and Regional Council. As the absence of some pro-Establishment legislators would mean an inadequate support for the passing of the bill, the Pro-establishment Camp filibustered along with Michael Suen, the then-Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, the voting of the bill was delayed to the next day and that the absentees could cast their votes. Though the filibuster was criticised by the pro-democracy camp, Lau Kong-wah of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) defended their actions, saying "it (a filibuster) is totally acceptable in a parliamentary assembly".
Legislators of the Pro-democracy Camp filibustered during a debate about financing the construction of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link by raising many questions on very minor issues, delaying the passing of the bill from 18 December 2009 to 16 January 2010. The Legislative Council Building was surrounded by thousands of anti-high-speed rail protesters during the course of the meetings.
In 2012, Albert Chan and Wong Yuk-man of People Power submitted a total of 1306 amendments to the Legislative Council (Amendment) Bill, by which the government attempted to forbid lawmakers from participating in by-elections after their resignation. The bill was a response to the so-called 'Five Constituencies Referendum, in which 5 lawmakers from the pro-democracy camp resigned and then joined the by-election, claiming that it would affirm the public's support to push forward the electoral reform. The pro-democracy camp strongly opposed the bill, saying it was seen a deprivation of the citizens' political rights. As a result of the filibuster, the LegCo carried on multiple overnight debates on the amendments. In the morning of 17 May 2012, the President of the LegCo (Jasper Tsang) terminated the debate, citing Article 92 of the Rules of Procedure of LegCo: In any matter not provided for in these Rules of Procedure, the practice and procedure to be followed in the Council shall be such as may be decided by the President who may, if he thinks fit, be guided by the practice and procedure of other legislatures. In the end, all motions to amend the bill were defeated and the Bill was passed.
To ban filibuster, Ip Kwok-him of the DAB sought to limit each member to move only one motion, by amending the procedures of the Finance Committee and its two subcommittees in 2013. All 27 members from pan-democracy camp submitted 1.9 million amendments. The Secretariat estimated that 408 man-months (each containing 156 working hours) were needed to vet the facts and accuracy of the motions, and, if all amendments were admitted by the Chairman, the voting time would take 23,868 two-hour meetings.
In Iranian oil nationalisation, the filibustering speech of Hossain Makki, the National Front deputy took four days that made the pro-British and pro-royalists in Majlis (Iran) inactive. To forestall a vote, the opposition, headed by Hossein Makki, conducted a filibuster. For four days Makki talked about the country's tortuous experience with AIOC and the shortcomings of the bill. Four days later when the term ended the debate had reached no conclusion. The fate of the bill remained to be decided by the next Majlis.
In the Senate of the Philippines, Roseller Lim of the Nacionalista Party held out the longest filibuster in Philippine history. On the election for the President of the Senate of the Philippines in April 1963, he stood on the podium for more than 18 hours to wait for party-mate Alejandro Almendras who was to arrive from the United States. The Nacionalistas, who comprised exactly half of the Senate, wanted to prevent the election of Ferdinand Marcos to the Senate Presidency. Prohibited from even going to the comfort room, he had to relieve himself in his pants until Almendras's arrival. He voted for party-mate Eulogio Rodriguez just as Almendras's plane landed, and had to be carried off via stretcher out of the session hall due to exhaustion. However, Almendras voted for Marcos, and the latter wrested the Senate Presidency from the Nacionalistas after more than a decade of control.
Since 2019, the Senate of Poland is controlled by parties opposing the ruling Law and Justice Party. In 2020, this body postponed legislative procedure of a controversial electoral act for 30 days and eventually vetoed it.
See also historical liberum veto rule.
South Korean opposition lawmakers started a filibuster on February 23, 2016, to stall the Anti-Terrorism bill, which they claim will give too much power to the National Intelligence Service and result in invasions of citizens' privacy. As of March 2, the filibuster completed with a total of 193 hours, and the passing of the bill.South Korea's 20th legislative elections were held 2 months after the filibuster, and the opposite party the Minjoo Party of Korea won more seats than the ruling party, the Saenuri Party.
During the Spanish Second Republic, Communist Party MP Cayetano Bolívar would allegedly read whole chapters of Karl Marx's Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto during his interventions in order to anger right-wing MP's and encourage them to leave session so that left-leaning policies would then be easier to pass.