The first Congressional use of the word “filibustering” to mean legislative obstruction is in the House in 1853, when one representative uses “filibustering” to mean “mercenary activities in Central and South America” and another representative rises and uses it as a quip against the Whigs to mean endless talking to obstruct legislation. “Filibustering” was used in the Senate in 1863, again with the understanding that it was an insult.
Despite our current politics, it is historically unusual for the Senate to be a “graveyard
” for legislation. By and large
, “there was more obstruction in the House than the Senate from 1789 to 1901.” The first time we begin to see an obstructionist Senate is in the 1880s and 1890s.
Yet, even those filibusters were unlike our present day endless-blockade, because they forced political compromises. The 1890 filibuster against a bill to provide federal supervision of Southern congressional elections succeeded in large part because the Southerners offered to support a silver bill in exchange for Northerners dropping the election bill.
That limited compromise of course meant another election supervision bill came back in 1891. Northerners like Henry Cabot Lodge and Nelson Aldrich had seen enough obstruction, and they set about restoring the “previous question” motion, which as we saw was present in the original Senate and was removed by accident. An early procedural vote passed 36 to 32.
Aldrich’s opponents used their weekend differently. They “spent Sunday in planning a coup,” according to the Washington Post. Word got around that Aldrich had let one of the senators in his camp leave town without securing a “pair,” or proxy, which would have ensured that his vote could still be counted even if he was not physically present. On Monday, Aldrich’s opponents pounced, carrying one ally, Senator Daniel Voorhees of Indiana, “from his sick bed to the Capitol,” while another, Senator James Eustis of Louisiana, “was brought from home,” the Post reported. …
Aldrich had not been expecting any important votes until later, and his allies—including the one who had left town—were not all present. But his opponents were, and they won the vote to scuttle Aldrich’s previous question bill by a single vote. Aldrich was unable to get his bill back to the floor, and his reform proposal was defeated, along with the Lodge bill to combat poll taxes.
That is to say, the filibuster survived (just barely) the proposed reforms of the 1890s not because Senators respected it as some sort of hallowed tradition, but because of partisan maneuvering and the raw exercise of power. As Henry Cabot Lodge said in 1893 while arguing for majority cloture
There is another right more sacred in a legislative body than the right of debate, and that is the right to vote. … To vote without debating may be hasty, may be ill considered, may be rash; but to debate and never vote is imbecility.
Still, even in the broken Senate of 1880-1917, with filibusters but no cloture, it was exceedingly rare for the minority to thwart the majority’s efforts to pass new legislation. An 1893 filibuster on a silver bill went on for 46 days and failed.
In 1908, Robert LaFollette set a Senate record by speaking 18 hours straight through the night while filibustering a currency bill, surviving on turkey sandwiches and eggnog, until declaring one of his glasses of eggnog adulterated—which it might have been
, or deliberately left out to spoil, because it was so toxic with the products of bacterial decay that it likely would’ve killed him. The filibuster ultimately failed, too, by way of an accidental yielding of the floor to a Senator who had just stepped out. That was the reality of the filibuster for most of its existence: any mistake, no matter how trivial, meant it was over. Today a filibuster somehow lives on indefinitely even when no one is doing anything.
What finally prompted the cloture rule was the wartime footing of World War I, when eleven Senators blocked a bill to arm merchant ships. The bill in question died when Congress adjourned on March 4, 1917, Woodrow Wilson blasted the Senators, and literally the next day the Senate held a special session and adopted the first cloture rule, which would end debate if two-thirds of Senators agreed.