How did a word that once meant “piracy” become a valuable tool in the American political system, then a weapon, and now a word that some hold in such low regard that they think it should be eliminated from our political process? Let us offer a subjective examination.
We turn to William Safire, a reporter then speech-writer for President Nixon (Pat Buchanan gets a lot of credit for the most serious flame-throwing remarks of that administration) and later a columnist for the New York Times whose column “On Language” was always a favorite read for this correspondent. A year before his death in 2009, the last version of Safire’s Political Dictionary was published by Oxford University Press. It’s a wonderful resource for any who follow politics and want to understand its lingo.
Back in the 1500s, governments such as Britain and France contracted with private ship owners known as “privateers” to, in effect, wage war on ships flying enemy flags—at the time, Spanish ships. More often than not, says Safire, these privateers became just plain pirates. “Privateer” is rooted in a Dutch word, “vrijbuiter,” which translates to “freebooter,” a word equated to “pirate.” In French, the word became “flibustier.” In Spanish, it was “filibustero,” words that were translated into English as “filibuster.”
In the mid-1800s, American filibustering expeditions took place in Central America, private military expeditions that sought to seize control of countries. One of those taking part in one of most famous, or infamous, such expeditions was James Carson Jamison who was part of William Walker’s filibustering effort and wrote With Walker in Nicaragua. He later served the Confederacy in the Civil War and was the state’s Adjutant General (1885-1889) under Governor John S. Marmaduke, a former Confederate General.
It appears the word was first applied politically was during debate in the U. S. House on January 3, 1853. Democrats favored organizing an expedition to take Cuba away from Spain. Whigs were opposed. One Democrat, Abraham Venable of North Carolina, crossed over to the Whig side, arguing that the United States should not engage in piracy to acquire Cuba. A Venable opponent, Congressman Albert Brown said, “When I saw my friend standing on the other side of the House, filibustering, as I thought, against the United States…I did not know what to think.” The word quickly became identified with efforts to block passage of legislation. It remains so today.
Your observer has observed that tactic being applied numerous times consuming hours of his life that added nothing to his knowledge or entertainment. Some had memorable moments but most were as interesting as three-day-old dry toast.
Filibusters work best when they are respected as tools that protect the minority and give it valuable weight in shaping public policy. They are their worst in times of agenda-driven super-majorities that see no reason to recognize the validity of minority positions.
Filibusters have been useful in forcing compromise, sometimes broadening the public policy under consideration, sometimes protecting the rights and privileges of those who feel a piece of legislation lessens their standing within society or in the economy, sometimes avoiding mistakes that otherwise would be enacted with the original proposal, sometimes forcing order into a proposal that endangers services beneficial to a broader public while granting a perceived unfair advantage to a particular segment of the people.
The filibuster works best in a partisan body in which the numbers force a recognition that the goals of one side cannot be attained without the cooperation of the other. While a simple majority might be reached by one side alone, the limits imposed by the clock and the calendar lessen that possibility if the minority side consumes hours and days, particularly as the hours and days of a session dwindle. The utility of a filibuster increases as time grows short—as it is now in the legislature—because the scenario not only involves the issue at hand but other issues that might never be reached because the time to reach them is being consumed by those holding the floor.
There are ways to end filibusters—a cloture vote in Washington, a previous question motion in Jefferson City that seeks to immediately end debate and immediately go to a vote. In previous years, when the partisan breakdown of the legislature was more balanced than it has been in recent years, the PQ—as it is called—was almost never used because both sides knew that it could be used against them if the majorities switched. Additionally, there was an acknowledgement that today’s enemy has to be tomorrow’s friend if you hope to get your bill passed. But as the majority-minority margins increase, the need for reciprocity dwindles and in time becomes irrelevant.
As that happens, the minority has a tendency to become more strident, more irritating to the majority—which is more tempted to shut down the minority with a parliamentary motion. Who cares about friendships in such situations? It also should be noted that the majority is less likely to shut off debate if the filibuster involves members of the majority party.
The minority, however, is not completely disarmed in such situations. A couple of years ago, the minority in the senate reacted when the previous question was called on a bill in the last week of the legislative session and nothing passed the rest of the way.
Many observers in Washington have pronounced the filibuster dead after the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch. Perhaps it is in a climate in which sixty votes, not just the majority, was required for action on some issues. But back here in the states, it remains a tool—some say, a protection—in simple majority climates where there are no rules that otherwise limit debates but where unwritten rules about honoring the tradition and the reasons for filibusters usually prevail. Usually.
Has Washington killed the filibuster? Or has it just turned organized participants there into privateers?