The U.S. Senate filibustered even discussing the Freedom to Vote Act, blocking a bill supported by 70% of Americans from getting a vote. But… what does that really mean?

Test your knowledge about this arcane and often-contentious Senate rule — and decide for yourself if it feels more important than a functioning democracy.

What is a filibuster?

Any attempt to delay or block Senate action on a bill
When a Senator delays a bill by talking at length
When a Senator hosts a formal discussion of a certain bill with their colleagues
Any dustbuster sold in Philadelphia
“Filibuster” is an informal term for any attempt to block or delay Senate action.

How do you end a filibuster?

A filibuster can only be ended by a duel
A simple majority can vote to end a filibuster
Three-fifths (60 votes) of the Senate are required to end a filibuster
Two-thirds (67 votes) of the Senate are required to end a filibuster
To end a filibuster, the Senate must vote, by a three-fifths majority (60 votes), to invoke cloture, or put a limit on the amount of time a bill or procedural matter can be debated. This is what ends the filibuster; a formal vote to end debate.

True or False: In order to filibuster, a Senator must remain on the Senate floor and talk indefinitely to stall the bill.

While many Americans today hear the word “filibuster” and imagine a Senator reading Dr. Suess on the Senate floor, talking indefinitely in order to delay a bill, that’s no longer the case. Today, a Senator can simply send an email and permanently halt a bill unless the majority has 60 votes.

True or False: The House of Representatives also has a filibuster, but it’s much more rarely used.

The House originally had a filibuster, but it was abolished in the late 1800s.

True or False: The filibuster is as old as our democracy.

The filibuster is actually a Senate rule that didn’t exist until the mid-1800s. It was created by accident in 1806, when the Senate removed the only rule that could stop a senator from talking. For a long time, however, no one noticed; Senators simply stopped talking of their own volition. It wasn’t until 1841 that the first filibuster was recorded, when the Democrats filibustered the Whig’s appointment of new printing firms to record the doings of Congress. The debacle almost ended in bloodshed when two senators attempted to duel; they were arrested before it got violent. ([s])

True or False: The filibuster has remained the same since it began.

The filibuster has changed multiple times, under the direction of both parties, since its inception. Originally, you needed a two-thirds majority to break a filibuster (67 Senators if the entire Senate is present). In 1975, this was lowered to a three-fifths majority, or 60 votes — regardless of attendance. In 2013, Democrats made certain judicial nominations immune from the filibuster, but left the filibuster in place for Supreme Court nominations. That is, until 2017, when Republicans exempted these nominations from falling prey to the filibuster.

Which party uses the filibuster to their advantage?

Both parties use the filibuster regularly when it suits them
With Democrats in power right now, they’d like you to think it’s only Republicans who filibuster. Not true. Democrats used the filibuster over 327 times in 2020. ([s])

True or False: The filibuster is used more frequently now than it used to be.

By a loooot. Between 1917 and 1970, senators filed motions to break a filibuster about 60 times. Between 2009 and 2015, they did this more than 500 times. ([s])[i]

True or False: All legislation can be filibustered.

Budget reconciliation bills and judicial and executive nominations cannot be filibustered.

True or False: A bill can only be filibustered once.

Passing bills are long, procedural processes — and you can filibuster numerous steps of the procedure. Sure, if the majority is able to break a filibuster once, they’ll likely have the same majority to break it a second, third, or fourth time. But while the majority might have the votes, they may not always have the time; repeatedly filibustering the process can be a tactic to delay a bill so much, it can’t be passed before the session ends. For example, after the majority announces they will hold a vote to end a filibuster, they have to wait two days to actually do that. Once they hold the vote, they have to allow for 30 hours of debate before they can move on. At each step, these hurdles can add up to big barriers, as the minority party intends. ([s])
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