A “filibuster” is a means of obstruction. It’s a political procedure where some members of a  parliament debate over a proposed piece of legislation to delay or completely prevent a vote being taken on the proposal. It is sometimes referred to as “talking a bill to death.”

This stalling tactic comes from Ancient Roman times and could also be called political stonewalling. Due to the often extreme length of time required for a successful filibuster, many speakers stray off-topic after exhausting the original subject matter. Past speakers have read through laws from different states, recited speeches, and even read from cookbooks and phone books.

One of the first known practitioners of the filibuster was the Roman senator Cato the Younger. Cato would obstruct a measure by speaking continuously until nightfall. As the Roman Senate had a rule requiring all business to conclude by dusk, Cato’s long-winded speeches could forestall a vote.

Cato attempted to use the filibuster to frustrate the political objectives of Julius Caesar. The last instance was in 59 BCE. When it was Cato’s time to speak during the debate, he began one of his characteristically long-winded speeches. Caesar, recognizing Cato’s intent, ordered him jailed for the rest of the day. The move was unpopular and Cato was released. The Senate never voted on the bill, but Caesar eventually circumvented Cato’s opposition by taking the measure to the Tribal Assembly, where it passed.

The ultimate source for our word “filibuster” is certainly Dutch vribuyter or vrijbueter (now vrijbuiter) meaning robber, pirate, or plunderer, (16th c.). Intermediate links may be English freebooter (1598), and the French word flibutor (1587). The Spanish form filibustero (17th c.) originally meant French, Dutch, and English privateers and buccaneers infesting the Spanish American coasts, with whom Spain was constantly at war. 

The definition became specifically “an American engaged in fomenting insurrections in Latin America in the mid-19th century” (1851). It is in this sense, meaning sabotage, which brought the term filibuster into American politics. 

Is there really no limit on how long a member of parliament may speak? My ears quail in horror!

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