Filibuster

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When at last he sat down, Senator Aldrich—as was permitted under the rules—immediately moved the yeas and nays on the report. Such a motion was not debatable, but it had a privileged status and would be voted on at the first opportunity. As long as the filibuster continued unbroken, no vote, of course, was possible. But should a lull develop because a designated speaker failed to take the floor, the filibuster would automatically end and the Aldrich motion would have instant priority as the next item of business before the Senate.

How soon such a lull would come was problematical, for the obstruction had been carefully arranged, and before the intervening motion La Follette had already indicated that William Stone of Missouri would continue to instruct the members on the monetary systems of the world’s states. Stone, in turn, relinquished the floor to Thomas Gore, the totally blind senator from Oklahoma.

The plan was that Gore would speak for a time, to be relieved by Stone, in preparation for a second lengthy speech by La Follette, who under the rules could speak once more—though once only. And so Gore proceeded until a tug on his jacket signalled him that Stone had returned to the chamber and was now ready to speak a second time. Gore concluded his remarks and yielded.

Unfortunately for the filibusterers, at that moment Stone was called to the cloakroom, and Gore, unable to see, had no way of knowing he had left. The blind Oklahoman thus surrendered the floor, with no claimant to take it. Aldrich demanded a roll call, which carried despite La Toilette’s desperate maneuvering in the next hour to set it aside. The conference report was passed; the filibuster was dead.

An attempt by Huey Long of Louisiana to break La Follette’s record in 1935 failed after fifteen hours and thirty minutes when the majority in the chamber refused Long permission to break off speaking for a trip to the bathroom. Thus La Follette’s speech stood as the personal record for a single senator until 1953, when Wayne Morse of Oregon spoke for twenty-two hours and twenty-six minutes on the tidelands oil bill. Morse’s endurance was surpassed four years later when Strom Thurmond of South Carolina talked continuously for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

1917

Despite the drawbacks of such lengthy speeches the Senate remained fully committed to unlimited debate until the eve of America’s entrance into World War I, when it at last approved a change in the chamber’s rules that made it possible for the majority to shut off discussion by invoking cloture.

What gave rise to the change was one of the most celebrated filibusters in Senate history. It was directed against Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to protect the nation’s merchant fleet from the depredations of German submarines on neutral shipping. Since 1914 Wilson had urged the nation to avoid war, but in February, 1917, the Germans announced they were returning to unrestricted submarine warfare, and the President immediately severed diplomatic relations. Late in the month, still hoping for peace, he proposed to arm American merchant vessels as a matter of self-defense, and a bill to that effect was introduced in the Senate.

As it happened, a major filibustering effort was already under way. In late February the Republicans had agreed to halt all business wherever possible in the face of the March 4th adjournment set by the Constitution. They hoped to force a special session of Congress as an embarrassment to the administration, and for five days they tied up the chamber with dilatory motions and long speeches. On one occasion they forced thirty-three consecutive roll calls, each of which consumed ten minutes or more.

Despite the delays Wilson’s Armed Ship Bill was brought forward on March a. The day before, the Zimmerman telegram had appeared in the press and excited national interest. The Germans, in the note, had openly suggested to the Mexican government that in the event of war between the Central Powers and the United States, Mexico might join Germany in return for the lands America had taken from Mexico in 1848.

The Senate was in an uproar. Seventy-five senators announced that they were prepared to support Wilson’s bill—if they could get to a vote. But no vote was possible; eleven men, led by La Follette and George Norris of Nebraska, used every possible maneuver to hold the floor until noon on March 4, when the Senate automatically adjourned.

The bill was dead through a combination of filibuster and majority impotence. A furious Wilson told the nation that it was the fault of “a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own.…” They had, he said, “rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible.” He demanded a change in the Senate rules.

That change was forthcoming in a special Senate session that opened March 5. Within three days seventy-six senators approved Rule 22, which provided for cloture. On the petition of any sixteen senators cloture could be invoked two days later if two thirds of those members present and voting agreed. Thereafter debate was limited to one hour for each senator on the provisions of the main bill and on all amendments and motions pertaining to it. No additional amendments could be attached without unanimous consent.

The rule has remained substantially the same ever since. In 1949 the consent provision was raised to two thirds of the membership, but returned to two thirds of those present and voting in 1959. After a three-week filibuster in January, 1975, the rule was changed to three fifths of the membership, a total of sixty senators.