The long, international, and occasionally dignified history of the filibuster

The long, international, and occasionally dignified history of the filibuster

Sure, Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster on Wednesday was dramatic in the moment. But in the history of filibusters, it’s unexceptional. After all, it was the ninth-longest in U.S. Senate history, according to USA Today — not exactly a glowing achievement in the practice’s millenia-long international history.

The etymology of the term stems from a Dutch word for privateers, and it entered the American lexicon via Spanish as rogue American settlers tried to seize land in Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico in the mid-19th century. Locally, they were called filibusteros — "free-booters" — and their populist movement was a diplomatic nightmare for the U.S. government. These expansionist efforts fell apart when the Civil War forced Americans to turn inwards, but the word had already gained its modern meaning when, in 1853, a Democratic senator, Abraham Venable, joined the Whig opposition to block a private expedition of settlers looking to seize Cuba. Despite his opposition to the aggressive expansionism,  which he feared would "make the United States the brigands of the world," his own colleagues in the Democratic Party turned the word on him for his own roguish action. The term came to be associated with aggressive minority efforts to delay legislation.

Some historians trace the practice back much further in history — to ancient Rome and civil libertarian patron saint Cato the Younger, who was known to make lengthy speeches past the Roman Senate’s deadline to adjourn at dusk, blocking further business for the day. 

The filibuster is truly a performance art, so much so that the most recent one before Paul’s yesterday, launched on Dec. 10, 2010 by Bernie Sanders, was accompanied by charts and made into a book and an art installation. The record for the longest filibuster in the U.S. Senate is held by Strom Thurmond, who spoke (maybe off and on) for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an effort to block civil rights legislation. At the state level, the record is longer: In 1924, a Rhode Island Senate filibuster extended 42 continuous hours over three days and "began with a mass fistfight over control of the gavel and ended when Republican operatives placed a poison-soaked rag behind [Democratic Lieutenant Governor Felix] Toupin to gas him out of the presiding officer’s chair," according to Gregory Koger’s Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate.

Elsewhere, the filibuster (by its modern, American definition) has different names. In the United Kingdom, the practice is known as being "talked out," and it was employed in January 2012 to stymie legislation that would have adjusted daylight savings time. Since British legislation is allotted only a certain amount of time for discussion and voting before being taken off the table, members of parliament can talk until the subject is shuffled back into the stack of pending bills — in the case of the daylight savings time legislation, the bill was talked out by Scottish and Welsh legislators who wanted more autonomy and the option to opt out of the U.K. time change.

In the United Kingdom, the tactic has also been an occasional recourse for Irish and Scottish representatives seeking to punch above their administrations’ weight. But, as in the United States, it has been used to block civil rights efforts as well, including women’s suffrage legislation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Perhaps the most dramatic filibuster, though, occurred in April 1963 in the Philippines. With legislators evenly divided between supporters of the Liberal Party incumbent, Diosdado Macapagal, and Nationalist Party up-and-comer Ferdinand Marcos, it came down to the Senate to decide the presidency. The day before the scheduled vote, Marcos visited Liberal Senator Roseller Lim, offering to pay off his home loans in exchange for a swing vote. Lim refused and Marcos, incensed, swore at him and his family before departing.

The next day, the Liberal senators were a man down — Senator Alejandro Almendras was still en route, returning from a throat operation in the United States. Lim took the podium and spoke for 18 hours and 30 minutes — he could not sit or eat, and he urinated in his pants at the podium rather than allow the vote to occur without the Liberals’ crucial swing vote. Finally, Lim yielded the floor upon hearing that Almendras’s fight had landed, and collapsed onto a waiting stretcher after casting his vote.

Unlike so many other filibusters, it’s hard to say that Lim’s act was one vanity — but it was in vain. Lim would learn, upon awaking in the hospital, that Almendras has cast his vote for Marcos.

Paul’s stand yesterday for a clarification in Obama’s targeted killing policy was dramatic at times, but not that dramatic. Hey, there’s always next time.