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The United States Senate is the upper house of the legislative branch of the federal government, with the House of Representatives referred to as the lower house. In the United States, the terms “upper” and “lower” house are not literal; they date back to a time in the 1780s when the Senate and House of Representatives met on the upper and lower floors of Federal Hall, their base in the former U.S. capital of New York City.

While some so-called bicameral (“two chambers” in Latin) legislatures around the world feature two separate bodies with distinct levels of power—such as the House of Lords and the House of Commons in the U.K. Parliament—the Senate and House of Representatives actually have roughly the same amount of power in the U.S. government.

In fact, both houses of Congress must approve identical pieces of legislation—known as bills—in order for them to become law. Since the early 1800s, both chambers of the U.S. Congress have been based in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

The Founding Fathers and the Senate

Although the U.S. Senate in its present form dates back to 1789, the year Congress as it is currently constructed met for the first time, it was not part of the original unicameral (“one chamber”) legislature established by the Founding Fathers.

Initially, the Founding Fathers, or “framers” of the U.S. Constitution, drafted a document called the Articles of Confederation, which was written in 1777 and ratified in 1781 by the Continental Congress (a temporary legislative body with representatives from each of the 13 colonies, which became the original 13 states).

The Articles established a unicameral Congress and the Supreme Court, but no Office of the President. Indeed, the first Congress had wide-ranging powers that included the authority to declare war and sign and negotiate treaties. Other government functions, such as taxation and the collection thereof, were left to the states.

This original Congress was made up of members elected by each of the states, which were represented equally. However, it soon became clear that this form of government was inadequate in many ways—namely, the more-populated states complained that they should have greater representation in the government than their smaller counterparts and that the unicameral legislature did not provide adequate checks and balances against potential abuse of power.

The Difference Between Congress and The Senate

With the writing of the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1787, the framers effectively went back to the drawing board and created a bicameral legislature.

It was modeled after similar forms of government in Europe that dated back to the Middle Ages. Notably, from their perspective, England had a bicameral Parliament as fact back as the 17th century.

The Constitution established the two houses of Congress, with the Senate featuring two members from each state, appointed to six-year terms, and the House of Representatives made up of varying members from each state, based on population, elected to two-year terms.

Importantly, the Constitution originally stipulated that while members of the House of Representatives were elected by the citizens of each state (meaning: those eligible to vote), members of the Senate were instead appointed by the individual legislatures of the 13 states.

This was the case until 1913, with the passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively changed the process to what it still is today, with Senators elected to six-year terms by the citizens of their respective states.

What Does a Senator Do?

Originally, the framers intended to have the House be focused on more pressing, everyday concerns, while the Senate would be the more deliberative, policy-centric body. However, these distinctions have generally blurred over the decades since, and now the two houses hold the same amount of power, and essentially have the same duties.

That said, the Senate does play a unique role in the functioning of the U.S. government. For example:

Impeachment: While the House of Representatives initiates impeachment proceedings against government officials, including the President, it is the Senate that investigates the charges and tries the cases against the officials, effectively acting as a prosecutor and jury. Since 1789, the Senate has tried 17 federal officials, including two presidents.

Cabinet, Ambassadorial and Judicial Nominations: The President has the power to appoint members of his presidential cabinet (including secretaries to the various agencies of the federal government), U.S. ambassadors to foreign countries and the United Nations, and justices of the Supreme Court and other federal judges. However, the Senate holds the power to vet and approve these appointments. Appointees who fail to receive Senate approval cannot assume their posts.

Treaties: While the President holds the power to negotiate and make treaties with foreign governments, the Senate must ratify these agreements, and the body does hold the power to amend treaties as it deems necessary.

Censure and Expulsion: Article 1, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution gives both houses of Congress the right to punish members for “disorderly behavior.” In the Senate, members can be “censured” (a formal term essentially meaning condemnation or denouncement), which is a formal disapproval. The Senate, by a two-thirds majority, can also vote to expel a member for disorderly conduct, a far more severe punishment. Since 1789, the Senate has censured nine members and expelled 15.

Filibuster and Cloture: The procedure known as filibuster—essentially open debate used to delay or block a vote on legislation—has been employed numerous times throughout history. In 1957, Senator Strom Thurmond famously filibustered for more than 24 hours in an attempt to delay a vote on the Civil Rights Act of that year. His filibuster included a full reading of the Declaration of Independence. Since 1917, with the passage of Rule 22, the Senate can vote to end a debate with a two-thirds majority, in a procedure known as cloture. In 1975, the Senate modified the cloture rule to enable enacting of the tactic on a three-fifths majority (60 of the 100 members).

Investigations: Both houses of Congress can conduct formal investigations of wrongdoing on the part of the Executive Branch (the president and/or his cabinet) as well as other officials and agencies. One of the most famous Senate investigations involved the Watergate scandal, which led to the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

Contested Elections: The Constitution also gives each house of Congress the power to be the judge of the “elections, returns and qualifications of its own members.” Since 1789, the Senate has developed procedures for judging the qualifications of its members and settling contested elections.

Senate Leadership

The Senate’s leadership also differs from that of the House of Representatives.

For example, in addition to being the first person to succeed the President, should the person elected to the position be unable to fulfill the role (as a result of death, illness or impeachment), one of the duties of the Vice President of the United States, who is elected to office on the same “ticket” as the President, is to serve as the “President of the Senate.”

In this role, the Vice President has no vote, unless a vote on legislation results in a 50-50 split. In this case, the Vice President casts the vote to effectively break the tie. Since 1870, no Vice President has had to perform this task more than 10 times during his term in office.

Like the House of Representatives, the Senate also has Majority and Minority Leaders. The Majority Leader represents the party with the majority of seats in the Senate. The Majority Leader coordinates with committee chairs and their party members to schedule debate on the Senate floor.

Both the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader, who represents the party with fewer seats in the Senate, also advocate for their respective party’s positions on various issues and pieces of legislation being debated in the body.

The current leaders of the Senate are Vice President Mike Pence and president pro tempore Chuck Grassley.


Origins and Development: The U.S Senate: United States Senate.
The Two Houses of the United States Congress: The Center on Representative Government, Indiana University.
Articles of Confederation: Digital History, University of Houston.

The origins of the filibuster—and how it came to exasperate the U.S. Senate

The concept of making marathon speeches to block legislation has been around since ancient Rome. But U.S. lawmakers have made this tactic notorious—and created a new form of "stealth" filibusters.

Appropriately, its name comes from a Dutch word for “pirate”—because the filibuster is, in essence, a hijacking of debate in the U.S. Senate. It’s also one of the most controversial traditions in American politics.

To win approval in the Senate, most legislation requires only a simple majority, or 51 votes. But to bring an end to the debate over a piece of legislation, the threshold is higher: the votes of three-fifths of the members present, or 60 senators, are required to cut off debate. If there aren’t enough votes for cloture, a single senator who refuses to yield the floor during a debate, or delays it with unnecessary parliamentary motions, can prevent the end of debate—and thus, the passage or defeat of the legislation.

Defenders of the filibuster argue that it protects the rights of the minority party and encourages consensus. Opponents complain that it subverts majority rule and creates gridlock. Both sides in the argument claim to have history—and the U.S. Constitution—on their side.

What’s there to know about the origins of the filibuster? Here’s a look at how it became so prevalent, why its use exploded during the civil rights era, and how it evolved into the present day’s so-called “stealth” filibuster.

Committee Jurisdiction

As specified in Rule XXV, 1(c)(1) of the Standing Rules of the Senate, the Committee on Armed Services' has the following jurisdiction:

1. Aeronautical and space activities peculiar to or primarily associated with the development of weapons systems or military operations.

3. Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy, and the Department of the Air Force, generally.

4. Maintenance and operation of the Panama Canal, including administration, sanitation, and government of the Canal Zone.

5. Military research and development.

6. National security aspects of nuclear energy.

7. Naval petroleum reserves, except those in Alaska.

8. Pay, promotion, retirement, and other benefits and privileges of members of the Armed Forces, including overseas education of civilian and military dependents.

9. Selective service system.

10. Strategic and critical materials necessary for the common defense.

The Senate has also given the committee the authority to study and review, on a comprehensive basis, matters relating to the common defense policy of the United States, and report thereon from time to time.

Roman Senate

The Roman Senate functioned as an advisory body to Rome's magistrates and was composed of the city's most experienced public servants and society's elite. Its decisions carried great weight, even if these were not always converted into laws in practice. The Senate continued to exert influence on government in the imperial period, albeit to a lesser degree.

Over time the Senate witnessed an increase in the army's intervention in politics and suffered manipulation in both membership and sessions by successive emperors. The institution outlasted all emperors, and senators remained Rome's most powerful political movers, holding key public offices, influencing public opinion, commanding legions, and governing provinces.



The Romans used the name senatus for their most important seat of government, which derives from senex meaning 'old' and meant 'assembly of old men' with a connotation of wisdom and experience. Members were sometimes referred to as 'fathers' or patres, and so this combination of ideas illustrates that the Senate was a body designed to provide reasoned and balanced guidance to the Roman state and its people.

According to tradition, Rome's founder Romulus created the first 100-member Senate as an advisory body to the sovereign, but very little is know about its actual role in Rome's early history as a monarchy. In the early Republic, it is likely the body began as an advisory board to magistrates and then grew in power as retired magistrates joined it as indicated by the lex Ovinia (after 339 BCE but before 318 BCE) which set out that members should be recruited from the 'best men.' A new list of members was compiled every five years by the censors, but senators usually kept their role for life unless they had committed a dishonourable act. For example, in 70 BCE, no fewer than 64 senators were omitted from the new list for undignified conduct. The system was now in place which, in effect, created a new and powerful political class that would dominate Roman government for centuries.



From the 3rd century BCE there were 300 members of the Senate, and after the reforms of Sulla in 81 BCE, there were probably around 500 senators, although after that date there does not seem to have been either a specific minimum or maximum number. Julius Caesar instigated reforms in the mid-1st century BCE, gave out membership to his supporters, and extended it to include important individuals from cities other than Rome so that there were then 900 senators. Augustus subsequently reduced the membership to around 600. The senators were led by the princeps senatus, who always spoke first in debates. The position became less important in the final years of the Republic, but it was brought back to prominence under Augustus.

There is evidence that the Senate was not wholly composed of members of the aristocratic patrician class, even if they formed the majority of its members. Some non-senators - magistrates of certain kinds such as tribunes, aediles and later quaestors - could attend and speak in sessions of the Senate. Invariably, such members were made full senators in the next censorship. Naturally, not all members actively participated in sessions and many would simply have listened to the speeches and voted.

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The rank of senator carried with it certain privileges such as the right to wear a toga with a Tyrian purple stripe (latus clavus), a senatorial ring, special shoes, an epithet (later with three ranks: clarissimi, spectabiles, illustres), certain fiscal benefits, and the best seats at public festivals and games. There were restrictions too, with no senator being able to leave Italy without the Senate's approval, own large ships, or bid for state contracts.

The Curia

The Senate met in various places in Rome or its outskirts within a mile of the city boundary, but the place had to be sacred, that is a templum. The obvious candidate was a temple, but the Senate most commonly met in the Curia, a public building in Rome. The first was the Curia Hostilia, used in the early kingdom, then the Curia Cornelia, built by Sulla, and finally the Curia Julia, built by Caesar, finished by Augustus and used thereafter. The sessions were open to the public with a literal open door policy that allowed people to sit outside and listen in if they wished.


Legislation & Proceedings

The formal function of the Senate was to advise the magistrates (consuls, censors, quaestors, aediles, and so on) with decrees and resolutions. Its decisions were given further weight by the fact that many senators were themselves ex-magistrates with practical experience of governance, and so, in practice, vetoes were rare (but did occur by, for example, the tribunes of the popular assembly, the tribuni plebis). Magistrates also had to consider that they would themselves be back in the Senate after their one year of office. Upon implementation the decrees became law. Exceptionally, during the crises presented by the fall of the Republic, the Senate could and did issue emergency decrees (senatus consultum ultimum) it deemed necessary to protect the state.

From the 4th century BCE, the Senate became increasingly influential on public policy as that of the popular assemblies and magistrates waned. The Senate decided on such matters as domestic policies, including financial and religious areas, first formulating proposals which only then did the popular assemblies have the opportunity to debate. Foreign policy was also considered such as hearing foreign ambassadors, deciding the distribution of the legions, and creating provinces and deciding their borders. Existing laws and their deficiencies could also be debated. In addition, the Senate had the power to shine prestige on Rome's most powerful men, notably in the award of triumphs for successful military campaigns.


A record was kept of the proceedings (senatus consulta) and published for the public to consult in the public archive or Tabularium. The practice was stopped by Augustus. Senators could always access these records, though, and writers, who were almost always senators, were not shy to quote from them in their works.

The Imperial Period

The Senate was still an influential body even after Augustus became emperor. Senators continued to debate and sometimes disapprove of the emperor's actions, and as the historian F.Santangelo notes, the Senate "retained important prerogatives in military, fiscal, and religious matters, and appointed the governors of the provinces that were not under the direct control of Augustus" (Bagnall, 6142). Certain law cases involving non-senators as well as senators (e.g. bribery, extortion, and crimes against the people) were decided by the Senate and their ruling could not be overturned by the emperor.

The Senate remained a prestigious body with important ceremonial and symbolic powers, membership of which was still the aspiration of Rome's elite citizens, now accessible to new members only via election to the quaestorship (20 per year). Augustus introduced a minimum property qualification for membership and then created a senatorial order whereby only sons of senators or those given the status by the emperor could become senators. Over the centuries, as the empire expanded so too did the geographical origins of the senators until, by the 3rd century CE, up to 50% of senators came from outside Italy.


In practice, despite their continued influence and prestige, the senators' powers had greatly diminished compared to in the Republic at its height. A small group of senators was now appointed by the emperor (consilium) which decided what exactly would be debated by the full Senate, which Augustus himself sometimes chaired in person. Tiberius (r. 14-37 CE) was another keen attendee, but he dispensed with the consilium, even if many subsequent emperors formed a similar informal advisory panel which included some senators. Real political power was in the hands of the emperors, but the Senate, nevertheless, continued to pass a large quantity of legislation during the Principate. Another important influence was the speeches made by senators, but when emperors started to make these themselves (orationes), they were subsequently quoted by jurists, suggesting they may have had, in practical terms, the force of law. Augustus also set a time limit on speeches made by anyone except the emperor. The Senate might have become less influential, but emperors were still formally given their power of office by it, and therefore their legitimacy to rule. The Senate could also have the ultimate last word on an emperor's reign by declaring them a public enemy or officially erasing their memory (damnatio memoriae).

Threats to the Senate

There were direct challenges to the authority of the Senate besides those arising from Rome's everyday system of government. In the 70s BCE a rival body was set up in Spain by Sertorius and the Senate itself was often split into factions during the death throes of the Republic when large groups of senators sided with the most powerful men of the time such as Marius, Pompey, and Caesar. A great many senators also fell foul of the political machinations of these men of ambition and were expelled from the Senate or worse.

Throughout the imperial period most emperors recognised that the Senate was an important voice of the elite of Rome and a reflection of their necessary involvement in the functioning of the empire, but their very attendance, the importance given to imperial speeches, and the moving away from acclamation instead of actual voting to pass legislation suggests that the Senate steadily declined as a forum of genuine political debate.

Reforms by Diocletian (284-305 CE) and Constantine (306-337 CE) transferred many public positions from the senators to the equestrians or at least blurred the distinction between the two classes. The Late Empire then saw the momentous decision to split the Senate into two bodies, one in Rome and the other in Constantinople. As the emperor now resided in the latter city, the Senate of Rome became only concerned with local matters. The Senate continued on, though, and even outlasted the Roman Empire itself, but it would never regain the power and prestige it had enjoyed in the middle centuries of the Republic before Rome became dominated by individuals of vast wealth and military power.

A Short History of the Filibuster

Filibusters tend to be more infuriating than inspirational.

After talking non-stop for 10 hours and 35 minutes, Huey Long informed his fellow senators that he wasn’t a bit tired. “I would just as soon stay here and go ten more hours,” he said. “I am in hog heaven here discussing this thing.”

It was 10:30 on the night of June 12, 1935, and Sen. Long had been yakking since noon, trying to prevent a vote that he knew he would lose. The Senate was prepared to pass an extension of President Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act, which Long opposed, and he was trying to talk the bill to death. Huey was a very entertaining talker, so spectators packed the gallery, many of them Shriners in town for a convention. “I seem to have new inspiration,” Long announced. “I seem to hear a voice that says, ‘Speak ten hours more.’”

During his epic filibuster, Long mostly ignored the National Recovery Act, preferring to read from the Constitution, quote the Bible and tell funny stories about his drunken uncle and the snakes of his native Louisiana. He jokingly proposed a bill to repeal “every law that has been enacted by the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations.” He gave a step-by-step lesson in how to fry oysters, and then he picked up a wastebasket and demonstrated how to make potlikker. “If you had a pot of turnip greens about two-thirds the size of this wastebasket,” he said, “you ought to put in about a 1-pound hunk of side meat that is sliced, but not clear through, just down to the skin part…”

As the night dragged on, Long periodically praised his own oration, describing it as “this masterful speech” and “a marvelous speech” and “one of the greatest speeches that has ever been made in this body.” After filibustering for 15 hours, he even had the audacity to proclaim, “I do not believe in filibustering.” Then he came up against the powerful force that dooms most solo filibusters—the call of nature. At 3:50 a.m., his bladder bursting, Long yielded the floor and dashed to the men’s room. The Senate soon passed the bill.

Long’s marathon monologue inspired actor Jimmy Stewart’s famous filibuster scene in Frank Capra’s classic 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And the movie helped create the enduring notion of a filibustering senator as a lone hero courageously defying the corrupt political establishment. It’s a heart-warming image but, alas, it’s a myth. Most filibusters are neither solo nor courageous, and they tend to be more infuriating than inspirational.

The colorful history of filibusters is a smorgasbord of idealism, cynicism, egomania, buffoonery and, if truth be told, a great deal of blatant racism. And it involves much more than just talking a bill to death. “A filibuster is any device used by a minority to prevent a vote because presumably the majority would win,” says Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate’s official historian. Indeed, these days the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to create gridlock.

Filibusters tied up the ancient Roman Senate, as well as the British Parliament. Wherever you find legislatures, you’ll find legislators stalling to prevent votes they know they’ll lose. But stalling is part of the very fabric of the U.S. Senate. The Founding Fathers created the Senate as a check on the House of Representatives, which was closer to the people and would therefore, the Founders believed, be inflamed by the wild passions and whims of the rabble.

In the early republic, filibusters tied up both chambers of Congress, but in 1811 the House enacted rules to limit debate. The Senate, a smaller body composed of larger egos, defeated all attempts to restrict debate for another 106 years. Consequently, the Senate frequently found itself handcuffed by a small minority—or by one long-winded member.

In 1841, when the Senate’s Whig majority wanted to fire the official Senate printers, the Democratic minority filibustered for a week, and the debate devolved into personal attacks so malicious that Democrat William King of Alabama challenged Whig leader Henry Clay to a duel. Clay accepted the challenge, and the two men might have killed each other if they hadn’t been hauled before a magistrate, who put the kibosh on the shootout. A few months later, Democrats filibustered for weeks against a Whig bank bill. Irate, Clay announced that he would sponsor legislation permitting a Senate majority to cut off debate, but he was forced to back down when his fellow Whigs told him they’d vote against it.

In 1846 Southern senators filibustered against a bill to appropriate money to purchase land from Mexico because it contained an amendment that prohibited slavery in the purchased territory. After a month-long filibuster, the appropriation passed—but without the antislavery provision.

Filibusters became increasingly common in the decades after the Civil War, with loquacious senators trying to kill bills on issues ranging from federal silver purchases to black voting rights. In 1903 Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a South Carolina Democrat, threatened to filibuster all pending legislation unless the Senate paid his state $47,000 that he claimed it was owed for expenditures in—believe it or not—the War of 1812. When the Senate capitulated and approved the appropriation, Rep. Joseph Cannon rose on the floor of the House and demanded that the Senate “change its methods of procedure.” If not, he threatened, the House “backed up by the people, will compel that change.” Cannon’s House colleagues cheered his speech but the Senate, in its lofty majesty, ignored it. It takes more than insults from the House to change Senate rules. In this case, it took World War I.

Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo filibustered a 1938 anti-lynching bill to protect “Saxon civilization.” (Library of Congress)

In March 1917—shortly before the United States entered the war—President Woodrow Wilson urged Congress to pass a bill to arm American merchant ships against German submarines. A dozen antiwar senators, led by Wisconsin progressive Robert LaFollette, filibustered the bill and defeated it. Wilson denounced this “little group of willful men” and demanded that the Senate curb filibusters. In the wartime patriotic frenzy, the Senate complied, passing Rule 22, which allowed it to end debate on a bill if two-thirds of senators vote for “cloture.”

The cloture rule provided a method for cutting off filibusters by a small group, but it was powerless against filibusters supported by more than a third of senators, which explains how Southern Democrats were able to use filibusters to kill every meaningful civil rights bill for the next 47 years.

The Southern filibusters were serious, well-organized power plays designed to defeat any attempt to extend equal rights to black people. For decades, the House passed bills to outlaw discrimination and protect the right of black citizens to vote, only to watch the bills killed by filibusters in the Senate. In an era when white mobs frequently lynched black people with impunity, Southern senators used filibusters to defeat anti-lynching bills in 1922, 1935, 1938, 1948 and 1949.

While filibustering to deny rights to minority groups, Southern senators had the gall to tout the filibuster as a tool to protect minority rights—meaning the right of a minority of senators to prevent the majority from voting on civil rights bills.

“Without the filibuster,” said Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, “the minority would be at the mercy of the majority.”

“The filibuster is the last defense of reason, the sole defense of minorities,” said Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas, while filibustering against a 1949 civil rights bill.

Sen. Millard Tydings of Maryland took the argument even further: “It was cloture,” he said, “that crucified Christ on the cross.”

Not surprisingly, the longest solo filibuster in history was an anti–civil rights monologue. It came in 1957, when Lyndon Johnson was the Senate majority leader. Johnson wanted to become president but he calculated that he could never win the Democratic nomination if he was associated with the Senate’s infamous filibusters. So he carefully crafted a civil rights bill so toothless that his Southern colleagues agreed not to filibuster against it. But one senator broke that agreement—Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who was worried about reelection.

On August 28, 1957, Thurmond took a steam bath to dehydrate his body so it could absorb liquids without requiring a bathroom break. Armed with malt tablets and bits of cooked hamburger and diced pumpernickel, he began talking at 8:54 p.m., and he didn’t stop for the next 24 hours and 18 minutes. He read the voting laws of all 48 states and quoted George Washington’s Farewell Address, but he forgot to mention that 35 years earlier he had impregnated his parents’ 16-year-old black maid, and consequently one of the people he was fighting to keep segregated was his daughter.

Thurmond’s marathon broke the filibuster record set by Sen. Wayne Morse in 1953, when the Oregon maverick denounced an oil bill for 22 hours and 26 minutes. “I salute him,” Morse said of Thurmond. “It takes a lot out of a man to talk so long.”

But Thurmond’s Southern colleagues didn’t salute. They were livid when Strom’s publicity stunt sparked a barrage of phone calls and telegrams from angry segregationists back home, who demanded to know why they weren’t helping Thurmond fight for white supremacy.

“If I had undertaken a filibuster for personal political aggrandizement,” said Richard Russell of Georgia, the leader of the Southern caucus, “I would have forever reproached myself for being guilty of a form of treason against the South.”

Seven years later, in 1964, President Johnson committed his own “treason against the South” by supporting a strong civil rights bill. Again, Southern senators tried to kill the bill by filibuster, but times had changed. American television viewers had watched Southern cops attacking nonviolent black protestors with nightsticks, dogs and fire hoses, and civil rights had become the moral issue of the age.

On March 30, as the Southerners started filibustering, CBS News reporter Roger Mudd began filing bulletins from the steps of the Capitol several times a day, standing next to a clock that ticked off the days and hours of the filibuster. The clock reached day 57—June 10—when Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia finished his 14-hour anti–civil rights speech, and then the Senate finally voted on a cloture motion. The motion required 67 votes—two-thirds of the Senate—and everyone knew it would be close.

A Senate clerk called the roll. “Mr. Aiken.”

Two navy corpsmen wheeled Sen. Clair Engle, a California Democrat, down the center aisle. Engle was dying of brain cancer and his voice was too weak to be heard. Slowly, painfully, he lifted his hand and pointed to his eye.

“Mr. Engle votes ‘aye,’” said the clerk.

The “ayes” won. For the first time in history, the Senate voted to break a filibuster on a civil rights bill. Nine days later, the Senate passed the landmark law that ended segregation.

The filibuster was tainted by its connection to Southern racism, but after 1964, it became just another legislative tactic, used by all kinds of senators for all kinds of reasons. For starters, in 1968 a bipartisan filibuster defeated President Lyndon Johnson’s nomination of Abe Fortas as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

In 1975 the Senate changed the number of votes needed for cloture from 67 to 60. Two years later, a pair of senators opposed to a natural gas deregulation bill tried to kill it with a “post-cloture filibuster”—bringing up scores of amendments and demanding time-consuming roll call votes on each. After 13 days of mind-numbing tedium, Robert Byrd, who was then Senate majority leader, thwarted the filibuster with a complex parliamentary maneuver, and the bill passed.

In 1987 Republicans defeated seven cloture votes to kill a Democratic campaign finance reform bill. When Democrats brought up the bill again in 1988, Republicans launched another filibuster. “We are ready to go all night,” said Republican Whip Alan Simpson of Wyoming. “We will have our sturdy SWAT teams and people on vitamin pills and colostomy bags and Lord knows what else.”

During the long night, Republican senators boycotted a roll call vote and in their absence, Democrats voted to command the Senate sergeant-at-arms to “arrest the absent Senators and bring them to the Chamber.” Sergeant-at-Arms Henry Giugni found Republican Robert Packwood of Oregon in his office and arrested him. Packwood insisted that he be carried into the Senate chamber—and at 1:17 a.m., he was. Despite the theatrics, the Republicans still killed the bill. “The events of the last 48 hours,” noted Republican Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, “were a curious blend of ‘Dallas,’ ‘Dynasty,’ ‘The Last Buccaneer’ and Friday Night Fights.”

That filibuster was a team effort others were solo performances. In 1981 William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat, spoke for 16 hours and 12 minutes to protest the fact that the national debt had reached a trillion dollars. (Now it’s over 12 trillion.) In 1986 Alphonse D’Amato, a New York Republican, spoke for 23 hours and 30 minutes to protest a defense bill that failed to fund a warplane made in his home state. In 1992 D’Amato spoke for 15 hours and 14 minutes against a bill that he claimed would hurt a New York typewriter company. (In both years, perhaps not coincidently, D’Amato faced tough reelection battles.)

The number of filibusters has soared since 1986, which might be connected to the fact that the Senate began televising its debates that year. Since then, senators from both parties have defeated judicial nominations by filibustering—or threatening to filibuster. This now occurs so often that it has become a ritual: When Democrats threaten to filibuster, Republicans demand “a simple up-or-down vote.” When Republicans threaten to filibuster, Democrats demand an up-or-down vote.

Whatever their party affiliation, critics of the filibuster are undeniably correct: The tactic is intrinsically undemocratic. But so is the Senate itself—a legislative body in which every state gets two votes whether it contains 550,000 people, like Wyoming, or 36 million, like California.

The Senate could end all filibusters by simply voting to amend its rules. Periodically, a senator proposes such a change, but the proposal inevitably fails because deep down, senators love the filibuster. They love it for two reasons. The high-minded reason was summed up by Sen. Byrd in 1989: “The framers of the Constitution thought of the Senate as the safeguard against hasty and unwise action by the House.” The less high-minded reason was summed up by Senate historian Donald Ritchie in 2010: “Asking a senator to speak for a long time isn’t a punishment. They love to do that.”

And so the filibuster goes on. And on. And on. Occasionally it gets downright bizarre. I witnessed one of those occasions on November 12, 2003, when I was covering the Senate for the Washington Post. Democrats were threatening to filibuster against four of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. In response, Republicans concocted a wacky new tactic—the anti-filibuster filibuster. For more than 30 hours—all of one night and deep into the next—the Republicans filibustered to protest the Democrats’ plan to filibuster.

This anti-filibuster filibuster incensed Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada so much that he protested against it by—yes, you guessed it!—filibustering. He denounced the anti-filibuster filibuster for eight solid hours. Reid’s speech was the Senate’s first anti-anti-filibuster filibuster—and it included recipes for goulash, advice on how to keep rabbits out of the garden and a dramatic reading of six chapters of his book about his boyhood hometown of Searchlight.

It made for a long, absurd, surreal spectacle, and those of us who witnessed it will never forget it, no matter how hard we try.

Peter Carlson writes our Encounter column. His latest book is K Blows Top.

Schumer: Barrett Confirmation ‘One of the Darkest Days’ in Senate History

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said on Monday that Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation to the Supreme Court will "go down as one of the darkest days" in the Senate's history.

At the close of his speech ahead of the Senate's confirmation vote, Schumer lamented that "generations yet unborn will suffer the consequences" of Barrett's nomination and characterized Monday as "one of the darkest days in the 231-year history of the United States Senate."

While notably more civil than the last confirmation battle to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Democrats have sought to cast Barrett as a retrograde jurist and a political pawn of the GOP. They have argued, among other things, that a Barrett appointment to the Supreme Court would end Obamacare or provide President Donald Trump with an advantage in the event of a contested election.

Senate Democrats also lambasted Barrett for her use of the term "sexual preference" while discussing the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, even though leading Democrats have used the term for years.

For her part, Barrett has sought to return focus to her originalist jurisprudence, arguing that her appointment would not lead to dramatic changes in Supreme Court precedent.

But when Republicans voted to approve Barrett's nomination last week, Democrats boycotted the vote, leaving in their empty seats poster pictures of constituents who would be harmed if Obamacare were overturned. Legal experts said it is highly unlikely the Supreme Court will undo the health care law.

Defending Lynching or the Ugly Secret History of the Filibuster

Sadly, in some ways the newly elected U.S. Senate was worse than the Turn of the 20th Century cesspool. In particular, the new Senate became a bastion of racism and white supremacy.

The U.S. Senate’s darkest hour came in the 1920s and 1930s when Southern Senators fought to protect their constituents’ right to lynching. Lynching was the murder of people, usually black men and boys, by organized white mobs. By the 1930s, lynching was so blatant that newsreel cameras sometimes recorded such murders.

U.S. Senators Edward P. Costigan (D-Colorado) and Robert F. Wagner (D-New York) tried to discourage lynching with The Costigan-Wagner Act. The Act made it a crime for law enforcement officials, such as Southern sheriffs, to ignore lynching.

A group of Southern Senators used a legislative strategy called the Filibuster to block the Act. The U.S. House of Representatives passed other anti-lynching acts in 1937 and 1940. The Southern Southerners killed those laws with the filibuster.

The filibuster is an arcane Senate tradition that lets any Senator speak for as long as he or she wants. In addition, a group of Senators can use the filibuster to block any legislation. To explain, Senate rules require 60 votes to override a filibuster. That gives some Senators unlimited power to block legislation.

Disgustingly, the US Senate did not pass an anti-lynching law until 2020. Efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation failed in the 1955 and in 2005. Notably, in 2020 U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) filibustered against the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Paul, a libertarian thought the Act threatened free speech.

Senate History

Below are some important events that have shaped the Oklahoma Senate throughout the 100-plus years of it’s existence.

The Oklahoma Land Run begins.

Congress adopts the Oklahoma Organic Act.

The Sequoyah Convention begins. Many of Oklahoma's founding leaders participating in the Convention that sought to create a second state in Eastern Oklahoma.

Congress adopts OK Enabling Act, unifying the two territories into one state.

Oklahoma adopts its constitution and becomes the 46th state in the Union.

The 1st Legislature convenes.

Henry Johnston is elected as Oklahoma's 1st President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

Senate receives notice of the Governor's approval of HB 363 and HB 557, creating the foundation for the state's taxes.

SJR 8 is enrolled and referred to the people. The Join Resolution would refer to the people a motion to move the State Capitol, but did not decide on a location.

Governor Haskell calls a Special Session to decide on a location for the State Capitol.

Senate amends the location of the State Capitol proposed by the House and suggest the Capitol's current location on Lincoln Boulevard.

The House accepts the amendments and affirms the Senate's proposal to locate the Capitol on Lincoln Boulevard. Voters would later affirm the decision on June 11, 1910.

The groundwork begins on the State Capitol. In the meantime, legislative work is conducted in the Huckins Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City.

The cornerstone is laid by Solomon Layton, the architect of the Capitol.

The Legislature convenes in the unfinished State Capitol building.

The Capitol is opened to the public.

Hiram Powers and Helen Wood are wed in a ceremony taking place in the State Capitol, the first of many to follow.

Ms. Lamar Looney is the first woman ever elected to the Oklahoma State Senate.

The Senate receives articles of impeachment for Lieutenant Governor Trapp. The Senate adopts rules and proceedures for the Court of Impeachment for the first time.

The Senate receives articles of impeachment during a Special Session called by Governor Walton. The Senate duly suspends the Govenror pending the outcome of the trial.

Governor Walton is convicted and removed from office by the Senate.

The Senate receives articles of impeachment for Governor Johnston, but ultimately acquits the Governor of all charges.

The Senate receives articles of impeachment for Governor Johnston, this time on broader grounds of administrative incompetence, corruption, and election violations. The Senate refused to suspend the Govenror from office during his trial.

The Senate convicts the Governor on one charge of incompetence and removes him from office.

The Senate enters Session at the height of the Great Depression and on the eve of the inauguration of Governor Murray.

The Governor's measures, by Session's end, are largely defeated by an uncooperative Senate. The only measure to become law dealt with the creation of the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

The Balanced Budget Amendment to Oklahoma's Constitution is forwarded to the people for a vote.

The first African American State Senator, E. Melvin Porter, is elected.

The first Republican Governor, Henry Bellmon, is elected.

Justice Johnson is impeached by the House and removed the Senate following the revelation that he, and Justice Welch received several bribes in exchange for favorable rulings. Justice Welch resigned prior to the impeachment trial.

The Senate passes SJR6, a constitutional amendment to limit Legislative Sessions to 90 days and to meet on an annual basis.

The troubles surrounding the redistricting progress begin to recede after the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act, clarifying the parameters of future redistrcting processes.

The people approve SQ 435, previously known as SJR6, to limit Legislative Sessions to 90 days on an annual basis. Prior to this constitutional amendment, the Legislature met every two years.

Voters approve an initiative petition pushed by then Governor Bellmon to fix a firm deadline on sine die adjournment. The petition set the last Friday of May as the deadline for sine die adjournment.

Governor Bellmon calls a Special Session to pass legislation that would improve the state's public school system.

The Senate receives HB 1017, otherwise known as the Education Reform Act, and begins to debate the measure. The measure raised revenue from a variety of sources.

The Senate considers HB 1017 and, after vigourous debate and multiple amendments, passes the measure.

Capitol Dome construction begins.

The Capitol Dome is commemorated

A competitive election results in the first, and so far only, instance in Oklahoman history wherein the Senate was evenly split between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Republicans and Democrats agree to a power sharing framework wherein there would be two Pro Tempores, two Chairs for each committee, and two vice chairs

Republicans assume control of the Senate for the first time in its history. President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee is elected to lead the body.

Senator Floyd is elected as minority leader for the Democratic Caucus of the Oklahoma State Senate. She is the first woman in to be elected to the position.

Senator Kim David is selected by President Pro Tempore Treat to be the Floor Leader of the Oklahoma State Senate. She is the first woman to be selected for the position.


The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 did not provide for congressional committees when they drafted the Constitution of the United States. Nevertheless, a select committee of eight Senators, often suggested to be the precursor to the present-day Judiciary Committee, was appointed one day after the Senate first convened in 1789. The select committee was tasked with drafting what would become the Judiciary Act of 1789. This landmark Act established the present three-tiered hierarchy of the federal judiciary, and the Office of the Attorney General.

Temporary committees commonly convened in the House and Senate during the early years of Congress. The small size of Congress made it unnecessary to create permanent committees. In the Senate, ad hoc committees were comprised of three to five members depending on the issues assigned. These committees met as needed to discuss issues at their desks in the Senate chamber.

The rapid growth of the nation after the turn of the 19th century and the increase in the number of members of Congress resulted in greater complexity in the federal lawmaking process. Elected officials in both the Senate and House recognized that the legislative business of the rapidly expanding country could no longer be addressed within the structure of select committees. In a resolution adopted on December 10, 1816, the Senate established the body's original standing committees, including the Committee on the Judiciary. The House Judiciary committee had been established three years earlier.


The Senate Special Committee on Aging was first established in 1961 as a temporary committee. It was granted permanent status on February 1, 1977. While special committees have no legislative authority, they can study issues, conduct oversight of programs, and investigate reports of fraud and waste.

Throughout its existence, the Special Committee on Aging has served as a focal point in the Senate for discussion and debate on matters relating to older Americans. Often, the Committee will submit its findings and recommendations for legislation to the Senate. In addition, the Committee publishes materials of assistance to those interested in public policies which relate to the elderly.

The Committee has a long and influential history. It has called the Congress' and the nation's attention to many problems affecting older Americans. The Committee was exploring health insurance coverage of older Americans prior to the enactment of Medicare in 1965.

Since the passage of that legislation, the Committee has continually reviewed Medicare's performance on an almost annual basis. The Committee has also regularly reviewed pension coverage and employment opportunities for older Americans. It has conducted oversight of the administration of major programs like Social Security and the Older Americans Act. Finally, it has crusaded against frauds targeting the elderly and Federal programs on which the elderly depend.

Senator Frank Moss (D-Utah) brought to light unacceptable conditions in nursing homes. Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) worked on adding more protections for seniors in the area of age discrimination. Senator John Heinz (R-Pennsylvania) reviewed Medicare's Prospective Payment System to see whether it was true the system was forcing Medicare beneficiaries to be discharged "quicker and sicker."

When the statute of limitations for age discrimination in employment claims had lapsed, Senator John Melcher (D-Montana) worked to restore the rights to America's older individuals. Senator David Pryor (D-Arkansas) investigated the pricing practices for prescription drugs and his efforts helped change the pricing behavior of pharmaceutical companies. Senator Bill Cohen (R-Maine) led the way to enactment of strong health care anti-fraud legislation. Under Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) the committee investigated abuses in the nursing home and funeral home industries. Sen. John Breaux (D-Louisiana) focused the committee's work on long-term care.

Over the years, the Committee has been in the thick of the debate on issues of central concern to older Americans. As the baby boom generation begins to retire en masse, the work of the Special Committee on Aging has only just begun.


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