Filibusters have been in the cultural zeitgeist for decades—especially on television shows and movies beloved by policy wonks everywhere like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
A filibuster is “the prolonged discussion of a bill to delay legislative action,” according to NCSL’s glossary of legislative terms. Filibusters and cloture are important parliamentary practices used in the U.S. Senate as far back as 1789 in the chamber’s very first floor session. But you don’t need to read legislative journals to know the term—according to press reports, filibusters are having a moment in some state legislative chambers this year.
The only chamber that features the word “filibuster” in its rules is the Texas Senate. An editorial note states, “The point of order having been raised for the third time that a Senator who had the floor was filibustering and not confining his remarks to the bill before the Senate, the chair requested the Senate to vote on the point of order. It was sustained and the Senator speaking yielded the floor.” Not even the U.S. Senate rules use the word “filibuster”—so what’s in a name?
A chamber may have a rule specifying a debate limit; in practice, however, the presiding officer or the body may choose when to employ it or not.
When people refer to a filibuster, they may be talking about debate limits, which are exactly what you might think: legislative chamber rules that restrict debate on bills, resolutions or motions. Each debatable action may have different limits. Some chambers enforce specific time limits on debate. For example, Iowa’s House of Representatives limits members to 10 minutes of debate on bills, resolutions and amendments, though they may be granted an extension.
Other chambers limit debate by defining the number of times a member may speak. The Indiana House limits members to speaking just twice on the same question unless the body consents to additional time. Still other chambers use a form of both strategies: Hawaii House rule 52.1 states, “No member shall speak more than twice on the same question without leave of the House; provided, however, that the movant of the matter pending shall be permitted to speak in reply, but not until every member choosing to speak shall have spoken. No member shall speak longer than five minutes the first time and three minutes the second time on the same question; provided, however, that any member may yield his or her speaking time to another member.” Many chambers also allow bill authors or sponsors additional time to speak on a bill.
Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, a parliamentary manual used by about three-fourths of legislative chambers, extensively addresses debate limits. Section 56 explains the right of a body to debate and the importance of free discussion on a matter but emphasizes, “This right of debate does not take from a body the right to control its own procedure, and the body can restrict or cut off debate.”
In addition, there may be a difference between written rules and norms and practices. A chamber may have a rule specifying a debate limit; in practice, however, the presiding officer or the body may choose when to employ it or not.
Why might a legislative chamber adopt rules or practices limiting debate? There may be no specific guidelines around when or why a chamber should use debate limits in its proceedings, but there are a few common scenarios where limiting debate may be helpful. In the 39 states with limits on session length, restrictions on debate might aim to keep the session moving along (together with other strategies such as bill and committee deadlines).
Other chambers, some of which have limits on session length, do not have formal rules limiting debate, allowing members to debate a bill as fully as they see fit. NCSL’s “A Legislator’s Guide to Parliamentary Procedure” calls full and free debate one of the most fundamental characteristics of a legislature.
So, does a “filibuster” prompt more robust discourse or just stretch the limits of debate? First, check your legislative glossary—then sit back, relax and observe the discussion.
Mari Henderson is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.