Wendy Davis and Famous Filibusters in History
Texas state senator Wendy Davis became an overnight political celebrity after her 11-hour filibuster.Corbis Images
Texas state politics drew national attention on Tuesday after state senator Wendy Davis single-handedly stopped the passage of an abortion bill with a 11-hour filibuster. As explained by the Washington Post, Davis was required to speak without a break, stay on topic and stand straight while speaking without leaning on her desk.
Though the bill is due to be reintroduced at a special legislative session called for by Gov. Rick Perry scheduled for July 1, Davis' stand succeeded in doing exactly what a filibuster was made for: providing a minority position in a legislature with a voice.
An old-fashioned form of political theater, the filibuster may not always succeed in preventing the passage of a bill. But a powerful and passionate filibuster can leave its mark on history even after the gavel has fallen.
John C. Calhoun may have been the first-ever advocate of the use of the filibuster.U.S. Senate
John C. Calhoun was behind the first major filibuster when in 1841 he held back a banking bill proposed by Senator Henry Clay.
Clay retaliated by attempting to impose a rule wherein only a simple majority was needed to conduct Senate business, gutting the filibuster. Calhoun passionately opposed the effort to suppress what he defended as the rights of the minority, ultimately succeeding in preserving the filibuster, which Calhoun would then go on to use repeatedly to defend the institution of slavery.
Robert La Follette's opposition to World War I would eventually earn him suspicions of treason and calls for him to be expelled from the Senate.Library of Congress
Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin might be the father of the marathon filibuster, and in 1908, he proved just how determined a legislator can be when he logged an 18-hour, 23-minute speech from his pulpit on the Senate floor.
La Follette's long address, however, didn't sit well with his colleagues or apparently with the Congressional kitchen staff. At about 1 a.m., La Follette sent a page to fetch a turkey sandwich and eggnog, which the kitchen workers had let sit in the summer heat. After taking a sip from the glass, La Follette knew it didn't taste quite right, but that was enough to force the senator to cede the floor.
According to U.S. Senate history, subsequent tests on the glass revealed that it contained enough toxic bacteria to kill a man.
La Follette gave a repeat performance in 1917 in protest of a bill to arm merchant ships against the Germans, as La Follette had opposed entry of the United States into World War I. This time, it was La Follette's fellow senators who posed a threat, with one senator even packing a pistol during La Follette's filibuster.
Huey Long's most famous filibuster took place just three months before his assassination.Corbis Images
Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana was no stranger to the filibuster throughout his career. His most famous performance of political theater would come in 1935, when he spoke for 15.5 hours to force Senate confirmation of the National Recovery Administration's senior employees, established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact New Deal programs.
As the hours rolled on and Long had exhausted his reading of the U.S. Constitution, Long turned to giving away his recipes for fried oysters and potlikkers.
Wayne Morse looked up to Robert La Follette, who also represented Wisconsin in the Senate.Corbis Images
Following in the footsteps of his mentor La Follette, Wisconsin Sen. Wayne Morse set his own record for the longest filibuster in 1953 when he spoke on the floor for 22 hours and 26 minutes. Morse had opposed the passage of the tidelands oil legislation, which allowed states to sell oil leases on what would otherwise have been federal public lands.
Four years later, Morse's filibuster feat would be eclipsed.
Strom Thurmond holds a press conference with his wife after his record-breaking filibuster.Corbis Images
On Aug. 8, 1957, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond began what would be the longest filibuster in history. Speaking in opposition to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes.
Thurmond prepared for the day-long filibuster by taking steam baths several days before he intended to take to the Senate floor, in order to minimize the chances of him needing to take a restroom break.
In the end, Thurmond's effort proved for naught as the bill to safeguard minority voting rights easily passed the Senate, 72 to 18.
Sen. Robert Byrd opposed efforts at filibuster reform late in his career.Corbis Images
Just as Thurmond did in 1957, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd stood for just over 14 hours to filibuster the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As was the case with Thurmond, Byrd's stand only served to delay the eventual passage of the legislation.
Unlike Thurmond, Byrd didn't embrace the legacy of his filibuster with the same enthusiasm, instead viewing it with regret years later. He would, however, remain a champion of the filibuster as a tool for preserving the minority voice in the Senate.
Alfonse D'Amato takes a call in his Senate office in 1989.Corbis Images
New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato fell just 48 minutes short of Thurmond's record filibuster when he stepped on to the Senate floor in 1986. The issue was spending cuts in a defense appropriation bill that would have meant lost jobs in his district. At one point during his over 23-hour filibuster, D'Amato ran out of material and began reading from the phonebook.
D'Amato repeated his performance in 1992, this time to block a typewriter company from moving to Mexico from upstate New York.
A television screen in a Senate office shows Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster on C-SPAN.Corbis Images
Earlier this year, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul filibustered the confirmation of John O. Brennan as head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Paul delivered his nearly 13-hour speech in protest against the refusal of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to rule out the use of drone strikes within the United States. Paul's stand was joined by several of his Republican colleagues, who supported him by asking him questions on the Senate floor, allowing him a brief reprieve from speaking.
As the New York Times reports, unlike many filibusters that devolve into lawmakers reading anything from song lyrics to their own books to kill time, Paul stayed on topic for the duration of his stand.