One of the more complex mechanisms of the US Senate is the ‘Cloture Motion’. It is linked to the filibuster and is an important part of how the Senate works.
What is a Filibuster?
Filibusters are a parliamentary technique that are used in many countries. For example, in Britain Jacob Rees-Mogg (sometimes known as the ‘Member for the 18th Century’) employed one in a 2010 debate over the Sustainable Livestock Bill that he opposed. He resorted to listing vegetables and reciting nursey rhymes to eat into parliamentary time:
Even more recently, and perhaps controversially, in November 2017 Conservative Backbencher filbustered Jim McMahon’s Private Members Bill that would have reduced the voting age to 16.
However, the filibuster is more integral to the US system than any other.
Filibusters can be employed in the Senate because of the informal nature of debate that takes place in that Chamber. With only 100 Members, the Senate has the time to allow all Senators to make detailed points about a bill or issue in question. In the House, with its 435 members, the Rules Committee clearly outlines the parameters of the debate, including how long a Congressman can speak for.
In the Senate filibusters are normally used by the minority to prevent a vote on a bill that they do not want to pass. Strangely, a Senator does not even have to talk about the issue in question – they may talk about any subject they wish.
Strom Thurmond (Democrat, 1957)
Length: 24 Hours and 18 Minutes
Issue: In 1957 the Government of President Dwight D. Eisenhower had been pushing for a Civil Rights Act. This was opposed by many Southern Senators, including Strom Thurmond. He spoke for over a day on the issue. He did not use a bathroom break and ate sandwiches whilst giving his filibuster. In the end, the bill passed anyway.
Rand Paul (Republican, 2013)
Length: 13 Hours
Issue: Paul used a motion to confirm CIA Director John Brennan as a platform to launch a 13 Hour Filibuster over the issue of US Government Drone Use. The Obama adminsitration had not ruled out the use of drones on US soil for surveillance and law enforcement. Paul, a noted libertarian, urged his fellow Sentators to challenge this with all their power.
Ted Cruz (Republican, 2013)
Length: 21 Hours and 19 Minutes
Issue: Ted Cruz spoke in oppositon to Obamacare. During his filibuster, he resorted to reading out a children’s book “Green Eggs and Ham”.
Chris Murphy: (Democrat, 2016)
Length: 14 Hours and 15 Minutes
Issue: After the Orlando Nightlcub shooting, one of many gun massacres in the United States, Chris Murphy staged a filibuster urging for reform of gun laws.
What is the Cloture Motion?
The cloture motion is an important part of the filibuster process because it is the only current mechanism by which a filibuster can be stopped. Cloture (French for ‘Fence’) is a motion that requires a debate to come to an end and, if applicable, a vote to be taken. It was first used in 1917. However, it has changed significantly through the twentieth-century. Originally, a supermajority (2/3s) of Senators needed to vote for cloture for it to be enacted. This was a very difficult standard to reach. Indeed, between 1927 and 1962 the Senators tried to pass a Cloture Motion 11 times and failed.
Since 1975, Cloture has been easier to achieve. A change to the rules requires 3/5s (60%) of Senators to agree to cloture. The graph below indicates that Cloture Motions have increased throughout the twentieth century:
So how does the Cloture Process work?
- A minimum of 16 senators must sign a petition for cloture.
- The petition is presented, thereby interrupting the filibuster.
- On the day after the cloture motion is filed, a quorum call is undertaken in order to check a majority of Senators are present in the chamber.
- The Senate then votes on the motion. If three-fifths vote for it, then the cloture motion will pass..
When a cloture motion is successfully agreed:
- No more than 30 hours more debate can be held on the issue in question.
- No senator may speak for more than one hour.
- No new amendments can be filed.
- No other business can take place until the issue under cloture has been concluded.
Why is the Filibuster and Cloture Motion Important?
- The potential of a filibuster means that a majority party needs 60 seats, rather than a simple majority, in order to be able to implement its legislative agenda. This particularly helps to prevent the dangers of ‘elective dictatorship’ when there is a United Government.
- As a result of needing 60 votes, the majority party must compromise. It is very unusual for the majority party to have 60 seats in the Senate. The last time this happened was for five months in 2009. Currently, the balance is 51-49, making it essential that some Democrats vote for the Republican legislative agenda for it to pass.
- A major criticism of the filibuster is that it has no constitutional basis, instead it is a Senate Rule. To many it is undemocratic, giving disproportinate power to the minority party who do not have the democratic mandate for this power.
Be sure to keep an eye out for this week’s blog post about the ‘Nuclear Option’, a way that the Senate can be reformed to defeat the filibuster.