Explanation: What is a buccaneer?
Let’s say you’re a US senator. A new bill has been introduced and you don’t like it. What can you do?
Obstruction occurs when a senator delays a vote by speaking, speaking, and speaking. You can talk about anything you want, for as long as you want.
The Senate stands still. Senators who want the bill have only one way to stop you – it’s called invoking closure. They need a supermajority, or 60 senators, to vote to silence you.
But it has not always been so.
The filibuster began with what some might consider an accident.
The Senate removed a rule to end debate on the Senate floor because some felt it was redundant. This left no formal way to end the debate. Senators were free to talk endlessly to delay a vote.
By the mid-1800s, senators were talking so much that the term “obstruction” was coined from the Dutch and Spanish words “free-booter” and “filibusteros” – the words for troublesome pirates attacking Caribbean islands.
In 1917, Senate Rule 22 was passed out of frustration. Finally, a formal mechanism could put an end to the filibuster by cloture, or this supermajority of 60 senators.
Soon the filibuster changed again, in the 1970s. You didn’t have to talk to the filibuster anymore. You didn’t even need to introduce yourself. You could just threaten to obstruct.
This is called “silent obstruction”.
This was made possible by a two-track system that allowed the Senate to continue its activities while a stalled bill was stuck in limbo.
The number of buccaneers skyrocketed, requiring a supermajority to pass almost anything.
Fast forward to 2013 – in the face of endless filibuster, the rules were again changed to allow most presidential nominations to pass with 51 votes instead of 60.
It was so drastic that it was dubbed “the nuclear option”.
The rules changed again in 2017, extending the nuclear option to Supreme Court appointments as well.
Today, many bills never see the light of day and many push for reform.
Although it was never in the Constitution, proponents of the filibuster believe it is an integral part of the Senate. It gives power and a voice to the minority party and encourages compromise.
But opponents say it blocks the Senate from doing anything.
Filibusters were also primarily used to block racial equality efforts. Between 1917 and 1994, nearly half of the filibusters were used to block civil rights and anti-lynching bills, as well as poll taxes.
As the appetite for filibuster reform grows, what will the Senate do?
The question is up for debate.