The floor of the US Senate has been the site of many gladiatorial encounters. Members of Congress wield many tools and strategies in negotiating a remarkably complex – and arguably highly inefficient – system.
However, perhaps the most epic weapon in their armoury is the filibuster. In a filibuster, a Senator may speak for as long as he or she possibly can in order to prevent the passage of a bill that has been submitted for vote.
The way is open for Senators to speak for as long as they can manage, and this has resulted in some very impressive times.
So who conducted the longest filibusters?
5. William Proxmire, 1981 – 16 hours, 12 minutes
The Wisconsin Senator spoke for 16 hours and 12 minutes in opposition to a proposed rise in the public debt ceiling. The plan would authorise raising the ceiling to $1 trillion.
Proxmire held forth from 11 am on 28 September through to 10:26 am the following day.
In an inspired move, his enemies in the Senate attacked the action, claiming that taxpayers were paying thousands of dollars to keep the chamber open all night for his speech
4. Robert La Follette Sr, 1908 – 18 hours, 23 minutes
La Follette was described variously as a ‘fiery progressive senator,’ a ‘stem-winding orator and champion of family farmers and the laboring poor.’ He also had possibly the best hair in Senate history.
This fourth longest filibuster in US history was conducted in opposition to the Aldrich-Vreeland currency bill, which permitted the US Treasury to lend currency to banks during financial crises.
3. Wayne Morse, 1953 – 22 hours, 26 minutes
Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, nicknamed the ‘Tiger of the Senate’, was a formidable political personality.
He was often embroiled in controversy – he was a key figure in the anti-Vietnam movement and had a proclivity to publicly contradict or oppose his leader’s views. He was one of only two Senators to oppose the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on constitutional grounds.
In 1953 Morse, elected as an independent after defecting from the Republican Party, had been cajoled into joining the Democratic caucus by Lyndon Johnson. From that position he conducted what was at that point the longest filibuster in history, in opposition to the Tidelands Oil legislation.
2. Alfonse D’Amato, 1986 – 23 hours, 30 minutes
D’Amato was a New York Senator and seasoned operator by the time a military bill he opposed came to the floor in 1986.
D’Amato was infuriated by an amendment to this bill which cut funding for a jet trainer plane due to be built by a company in his state.
D’Amato had a propensity to filibuster and was known for doing so in a humorous way. In 1992, D’Amato filibustered a bill that would have caused the loss of 750 jobs in New York by singing ‘South of the Border (Down Mexico Way).’
1. Strom Thurmond, 1957 – 24 Hours, 18 minutes
Strom Thurmond was a colossus of the Senate, and the ringleader of the racist Southern Caucus. In this role, he enacted the longest filibuster of all time.
His was part of a larger team effort to terminate the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first piece of Civil Rights legislation passed since the 1866 and 1875 Acts.
Thurmond began speaking at 8:54 pm on 28 August and continued until 9:12 pm the next day. To pad out his remarks, Thurmond recited the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and George Washington’s farewell address among other documents.
Overall, the segregationist caucus expended 57 days effort filibustering the bill – from 26 March to 19 June – before it was eventually passed.