POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy


A filibuster is a tactic used by one or several US senators to delay or even block legislative actions in the US Senate. The concept has a long tradition and goes back to the 1850s where it was first used to prevent a bill from passing into law. The term “filibuster” derives from the Dutch word for pirate. Filibustering is also known as "talking a bill to death", as it involves senators giving long-winded speeches in the aim of obstructing the passage of a bill.

Cloture Rule vs. Filibuster

Since 1917, the blanket right for unlimited debate and therefore being able to filibuster was restricted. President Woodrow Wilson urged the senators to adopt a rule to stop filibustering. Rule 22 or The Cloture Rule demanded a two-thirds majority in the Senate to end a debate. Today the Cloture Rule requires only a three-fifths majority, or 60 of the current senators.

In 1919, the Cloture Rule was first invoked to end the filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. Later in the 1960s, southern senators often used the filibuster tactic to block civil rights legislation. After a 60-day filibuster the Cloture Rule was invoked and the Civil Rights Act 1964 could be passed.

The longest individual filibuster was held by South Carolina's senator J. Strom Thurmond in 1957 against the Civil Rights Act 1957. His speech lasted a total of 24 hours and 18 minutes. 

Some countries, such as Australia, have set strict time limits on speeches given by members of parliament in order to avoid the obstructive tactic of filibustering.

See also: Cloture, US Senate, US Congress

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