Fixing the Filibuster

Why It's Easier Said Than Done

Senators prepare for all-night filibuster, 2005. (Courtesy Reuters)

By many measures, 2012 was the U.S. Senate's least productive year in two decades. Republicans blame the Congressional Democrats. Democrats blame the filibuster. 

Obstructionism is not unique to the United States. Most parliamentary democracies, including Great Britain's and Japan's, have also faced gridlock. In 1992, the Japanese opposition tried to stall a vote on whether Japanese self-defense forces should assist UN peacekeeping missions by introducing five motions that had to be brought to a vote first. They then resorted to ushi aruki (cow-walking), or taking as long as humanly possible to make one's way from one's seat to the ballot box 20 feet away. For some legislators, the pace was less than one foot per minute. Some votes took over 11 hours. The opposition, nevertheless, lost.

Although procrastination holds up all legislatures from time to-time, few parliamentary democracies seem to face it as often as the U.S. Senate does. Perhaps that is because, as studies including those by the Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and Harvard University's Kenneth Shepsle have shown, individual senators in the United States have fewer reasons not to filibuster than those in other countries; Senate leaders, moreover, have fewer means than their parliamentary counterparts to prevent sluggishness from bringing government to a standstill.


Counter to popular perceptions, for most of U.S. history, the filibuster was a rare event. The word "filibuster" does not appear anywhere in the U.S. Constitution or in the Standing Rules of the Senate. The word (historians trace it to the Dutch vrijbuiter and the Spanish filibustero, both of which mean "pirate") was not used in reference to Senate behavior until the late nineteenth century. 

Filibustering is not a right granted by a specific law; it derives instead from gaps in the rules, namely the Congressional ground rule that "No Senator shall interrupt another Senator in debate without his consent..." and the lack

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