One hundred two years ago today, the US Senate for the first time invoked the cloture rule to limit debate on pending legislation, i.e., to end a filibuster. Filibuster derives from a Dutch word for “freebooter,” related to piracy and plunder.
By 1856, the Senate had been declared by an Arlington, Virginia, newspaper, Gazette, to be “the greatest deliberative body in the nation.” The appellation was subsequently applied to the world.
The nascent political theory behind the filibuster rested upon the pervasive fears of the authors of the Constitution and early Senate members that legislation ought not to be rushed by emotion or rampant populism. By the early 1900s, even the senators themselves had concluded that the potential for endless speech precluding legislative accomplishments had become anachronistic.
For any who may have tuned in to C-SPAN broadcasts of Senate proceedings, the process may remain a mystery as there is little evidence of James Stewart as Mr. Smith orating on the floor until his collapse. More often, cloture now is a standard procedure required to move a presidential nomination or legislation and filibuster has become a “slow walk” by the opposition political party to frustrate agency staffing and campaign pledges.
Filibuster and cloture have combined over time to exacerbate and amplify the influence and power of individual members of the Senate many times beyond their home constituencies, regardless of party affiliation. Too often among the 100 members, a small few have operated functionally as an oligarchy, neither the vision of the Founders nor the purpose of a great deliberative body.
It took a Constitutional amendment to subject Senators to direct election by the people. The question now remains what will it take to convince them to behave in the interests of the people.