The Art of the Filibuster: Can One Person Stop a Government?
Airlines talk about giving safety inspectors the power to keep a plane on the ground. Journalists still probably harbor the fantasy of running into a newsroom with a big scoop and yelling, "Stop the presses!"
But in real life, unless you're the leader, it's pretty rare that one person can bring everything to a halt. That's part of why the legislative news out of Texas today is so gripping. A Democratic state senator staged a day-long filibuster that just barely stopped the Republican-led legislature from passing a restrictive abortion law.
To do so, state Senator Wendy Davis had to remain standing without aid, talking nonstop long enough to run out the clock on the 2013 legislative session. Although Republican opponents declared she'd wandered off topic around 10 p.m., her supporters disrupted the chamber and delayed a vote until after the session ended at midnight. That nullified the vote and killed the bill.
A real, live filibuster--not just the threat!
In Washington, it's rare that we actually see a real filibuster--and when we do, it's usually a delaying tactic or a protest. Technically, U.S. Senators don't even have to talk as they did in days of yore; instead they simply have to threaten a filibuster in order to achieve the same delaying result.
All of which makes the drama in Texas seem, well, more dramatic. With that in mind, here are six examples of old-style Washington filibusters, in which a single lawmaker brought the government of the greatest country in the world to a halt.
2013: Senator Rand Paul
Senator Paul, Republican of Kentucky, took to the floor to talk for 13 hours in an effort to block (or at least protest) President Obama's nomination of John Brennan to be the head of the CIA. As Paul put it, his real goal was to "sound an alarm from coast to coast" that "no American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime."
In the end, the senator declared victory, although Brennan is now leading the CIA. Regardless, it was a brilliant marketing move.
1957: Senator Strom Thurmond
This one stands the test of time for stamina, but it's also a great example of being on the losing side of history. Sen. Thurmond of South Carolina, then a Democrat, stopped a vote on a 1957 civil rights bill for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes, partly by reading the Declaration of Independence and George Washington's farewell address.
The result? Thurmond and his allies continued the filibuster for nearly two months, but the Civil Rights Act of 1957 eventually passed on June 19. It didn't seem to hurt Thurmond, though. He switched to the Republican party over his opposition to another civil rights bill and continued to serve in the Senate until his death in 2003.
1981: Senator William Proxmire
Here's a bit of irony: After the Thurmond-led filibuster in 1957, a freshman senator from Wisconsin had the chance to cast his first-ever vote -- in favor of that same civil rights act.
The experience must have stuck with Senator Proxmire, because nearly a quarter century later, he used the same action-stalling technique on another issue. In 1981, Proxmire talked for 16 hours in an attempt to stop the government from raising the debt ceiling to $1 trillion. (In the end, he was no more successful than Thurmond. The debt is now $16.7 trillion.)
1935: Senator Huey P. Long
No discussion of the filibuster would be complete without Senator Long, who used the tactic repeatedly. The Louisiana senator was probably best known for his 1935 filibuster of a bill that was related to President Roosevelt's New Deal, reportedly because he believed it would give his political enemies jobs. Long talked for about 15 hours, reading the phone book, the Constitution, Shakespearean plays, and even some recipes for Louisiana oyster dishes.
1953: Senator Wayne Morse
How's this for a history lesson? In the 1952 presidential election, one of the big issues has to do with whether the federal government or the states owned the "tidelands," meaning the land that extends between the high and low tide lines of seacoasts. Whichever entity owned them had a chance at tax revenues from oil drilling.
President Eisenhower had promised to return them to the states, which set the stage for Oregon Senator Morse's 22 hours, 26 minute filibuster. He set the record at the time, although Thurmond broke it with his filibuster against the civil rights act a few years later.
1939: Senator Jefferson Smith
This one is fictional, but I'm including it because it's the image many Americans have of a filibuster. It's from the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about a squeaky clean caretaker senator appointed after the death of an old-school politician.
Playing the titular character, Jimmy Stewart filibusters an appropriations bill for a full 24 hours. He collapses from exhaustion, but his courage and stout-heartedness wins over the rest of the senators, (plus, he gets the girl).
Interesting aside: Stewart was famous from this and other movies in the 1930s, but he still enlisted in the Army at the start of World War II, became a bomber pilot and flew at least 20 combat missions over Germany, and eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve.
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BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.