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Congress-ese: Filibuster — Not Just a Ska Band from Sacramento

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September 5, 2008

The first thing you think of when you hear filibuster is probably Jimmy Stewart railing away in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Sadly, filibusters are generally much less dramatic and definitely lacking in Capra-esque value. Many of you may have come to this disappointing revelation during the FISA debate when Senator Dodd bravely tried to delay a vote because he, like us, knew that telecom immunity was insane.

Here’s the gist: A filibuster is a parliamentary strategy used to obstruct floor action and is used as a tactic used to prolong debate and delay votes on pretty much anything. It can also be used to change or defeat a bill. Since a vote can only happen once debate ends, filibusters are a pretty successful way of sticking it to the man.

Thank you Thomas and West Wing!

Cloture and filibusters go together like peanut butter and jelly. Kind of. Cloture, cloture, cloture. It’s a weird word. I’ve never liked it. And I’ve never liked the terminology that surrounds it: “Cloture is filed, then it needs to ripen.” That sounds gross to me.

So, a cloture motion is filed when the Senate wants to end a filibuster or wrap up debate. Someone must file the cloture motion then it comes to a vote. If it passes by a three-fifths majority (that’s 60 votes), the vote on final passage of the bill will occur 30 hours later. (“Ripening” is the two-day waiting period required between filing for cloture and the cloture vote.)

Sometimes a vote for cloture is a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing. For instance, not to harp, but during the FISA debate we were hoping cloture would fail whenever it was filed because why limit debate on something as incredibly important as the Fourth Amendment? BUT. If it’s a bill we’d love to see passed (say the State Secrets Protection Act?), we’d hope that Senators would vote FOR cloture thereby speeding up the process and putting a lid on hijinks.

Fun Fact! Many people don’t know that only Senators can perform filibusters or invoke cloture. It’s a few more bonuses that come on a long list with being a Senator (including not having to beg for your job every two years like those suckers in the House).

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post defined “ripening” as the elapsing of 30 post-cloture hours. That was incorrect. “Ripening” is the two-day waiting period required between filing for cloture and the cloture vote. Thanks to Kagro X for setting us straight!