The Filibuster and Robert’s Rules of Order

The term filibuster has burst back into the public consciousness due to several high profile political happenings.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened a “nuclear option” in the United States Senate to prohibit filibusters of certain presidential nominees.  And recently in Texas, state Senator Wendy Davis used a 13 hour filibuster to defeat an abortion bill by speaking until the legislative clock ran out.  Many news reports on these two events have mentioned the filibuster in the context of parliamentary procedure and the parliamentary manual, Robert’s Rules of Order.  Twitter even reported that during Senator Davis’ filibuster the phrase “Robert’s Rules of Order” was trending worldwide.

What Is a Filibuster?

The connection between “filibuster” and “Robert’s Rules of Order” is interesting, given that the word “filibuster” doesn’t appear in Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th Edition).  Not once in 716 pages!  That’s because the filibuster is a legislative concept.  About the only recent parliamentary manual that describes the term is Demeter’s Manual of Parliamentary Law, which notes: “Filibuster, or talking a question to death, is a parliamentary proceeding practiced in the Senate of the United States.”  (Demeter, p. 29)  After a few sentences, Demeter concludes by noting “a filibuster cannot occur in [ordinary] organizations and it need be of no concern to you.”

According to Robert Luce’s 1922 classic, Legislative Procedure, the term “filibuster” comes from the Spanish word filibusteros, which described West Indian pirates that used a small boat called a filibote, or “fly-boat.”  The term was originally applied to military adventurers, but it was soon extended in politics to “legislative minorities who used what the majority deemed piratical, disorderly, lawless methods.”  (Luce, 283)  Instances of filibustering can be found in the very first Congress of the United States in 1790.  (Demeter notes as an interesting aside that debate in the U.S. House of Representatives was initially similarly unlimited, but “in 1820 the House adopted the one-hour limit when the brilliant and erratic John Randolph of Virginia consumed so much time in debate the rule was adopted to prevent his holding the floor indefinitely.”)

How Does Robert’s Rules of Order Limit Debate?

So why do Robert’s and most other modern parliamentary manuals ignore the filibuster?  Well, because unless an organization has a special rule or custom that allows such a practice (as in the U.S. Senate), members can’t just keep talking.  General parliamentary procedure has a philosophy of equalizing participation, in that it’s better to hear from six members one time than one member six times!  In fact the latest Robert’s, Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th Edition), has several rules on debate that apply to most meetings and conventions (though not necessarily to smaller boards or committees) to prevent lengthy and repetitive debate:

  1. No one can speak at one time more than 10 minutes.
  2. Anyone who has not spoken gets to speak before anyone who has already spoken.
  3. No one is permitted to speak a third time to a motion.

Whether your organization follows formal procedure or not, here are some practical suggestions for limiting debate:

  • Encourage new discussion and prevent repetition by asking for speakers who have not spoken.
  • Alternate pro and con.  After hearing from a proponent, ask if there is anyone who wishes to speak against the motion.  If no one wishes to speak on a particular side, it may be time to ask for unanimous consent to end debate.
  • The chair always has some responsibility to act as traffic cop.  That is, if a member tries to jump in for a second or third time while others wish to speak, the chair (like an officer in an intersection) may need to hold out a hand palm-forward to “stop” the member and say, “Charlie, you’ve already spoken twice.  Let’s hear from Mary.”
  • If a matter is likely to be lengthy, consider setting a total debate time by vote of the body.
  • If discussion appears to have reached diminishing returns, the chair can always ask for a motion to close debate.

While a true filibuster only exists is some legislative settings, the above suggestions from Robert’s Rules of Order can help move discussion and keep debate from seeming to be never-ending!