Political Science The Filibuster
Gregory Koger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0072


Filibustering is the strategic use of delay in a legislative setting. The term is derived from a 19th-century term for a pirate or adventurer, and it may be used synonymously with obstruction. A filibuster is a sustained effort or threat to delay a measure. Filibustering is often associated with the US Senate, but legislators have obstructed in the US House of Representatives, a variety of legislatures around the world, and several American state legislatures. A filibuster is similar to a veto in that it may empower a political minority to prevent some government action, but it is dissimilar in that the right to filibuster is more likely to be informal, more likely to involve some effort or political risk, and subject to the tolerance of the parliamentary majority. Overall, the ability of legislators to filibuster may have significant effects on a polity’s policy outcomes and political stability.

Classic Institutional Histories

The first generation of institutional studies of Congress coincided with a surge of obstruction in the US House of Representatives and some major filibusters in the US Senate, culminating in a great debate over whether filibustering should be permitted in either chamber. While most of these works are general surveys, obstruction is a major theme in each. These works are useful for providing a broader perspective on obstruction by highlighting the use of filibustering outside of the US Senate, the range of tactics used, and the possible responses of majorities to obstruction. Alexander 1970 (originally published 1916), Follett 1974, Luce 1922, and Robinson 1930 all review the history of obstruction in the US House and the historic clash over Thomas Reed’s efforts to reintroduce majority rule to the US House in the 1890s. The comparative approach in Luce 1922 is especially useful; the author discusses the tactics and history of obstruction in both chambers of the US Congress and the British Parliament. Kerr 1895 and Haynes 1938 are general surveys of Senate history and practice, including the development of filibustering and efforts to restrict it. The capstone is Burdette 1940, the first monograph specifically on obstruction and the last such work until Binder and Smith 1997 (cited under Political Science Books).

  • Alexander, De Alva Stanwood. History and Procedure of the House of Representatives. New York, B. Franklin, 1970.

    Discusses several cases of obstruction and rule changes in the 19th-century House, including the battle over House obstruction from 1890 to 1894. Originally published in 1916.

  • Burdette, Franklin L. Filibustering in the Senate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1940.

    A classic text on Senate obstruction, and the last book on the topic until Binder and Smith 1997 (cited under Political Science Books).

  • Follett, Mary Parker. The Speaker of the House of Representatives. New York: B. Franklin, 1974.

    Discusses the role of House Speakers in abetting or suppressing obstruction.

  • Haynes, George H. The Senate of the United States: Its History and Practice. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1938.

    Surveys the history of Senate obstruction and reviews options to reduce or suppress the practice.

  • Kerr, Clara Hannah. The Origin and Development of the United States Senate. Ithaca, NY: Andrus & Church, 1895.

    Surveys the history of Senate obstruction and procedural responses to filibusters.

  • Luce, Robert. Legislative Procedure. New York: Da Capo, 1972 (1922) .

    This broad work includes excellent sections on obstruction, debate, and rules reform. It provides a comparative survey of obstruction in the US Congress and other legislatures.

  • Robinson, William A. Thomas B. Reed: Parliamentarian. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1930.

    A classic biography of a singular figure in the suppression of filibustering in the US House.

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