Since 1789, when the Senate adopted its first rule, it has had a dilemma: how and when to make itself shut up.
The Senate is at it again this month, trying to silence a minority that is staging a filibuster.
A filibuster is a talkathon.
Filibusters are as much Senate tradition as the inkwells and the pages. They are staged by one or more senators - usually more - as a way of stopping action on a particularly loathsome bill.
Particularly loathsome is the only way to describe how the 23 filibusters view H.R. 8410, the controversial labor-law revision bill, against which they have been holding forth since May 16.
As this filibuster goes on, denounciations are inevitable: Tyranny of a minority. Obstructionism. Demagoguery.
Filibusters always have caused anguish to an impatient majority and the impatient advocates who want their will made law of the land.
Actually, the filibusters is an important, albeit frustrating, element of the Senate's right to unlimited debate. This tradition makes the Senate vastly different from the House of Representatives.
Floyd M. Riddick, parlimentarian emeritus of the Senate, recently describe it this way: "Coming from the House of the Senate, it is like going from prison to freedom. This procedure of the filibuster, when the senators restrain themselves and do not abuse the previlege, is more edifying and constructive."
He continued, "I'm talking about the freedom of time to develop what you are trying to get over . . . I just can't imagine debates in the Roman senate ever being developed under the House Procedures."
The difference he was describing is simple. The House puts a time limit on its legislative discussions. A bill there can be debated and passed before any of the 435 members knew what has happened.
The Senate also can do that same legislative fast shuffle, but the rule of unlimited debate makes it possible for one senator to stop the process and, if he wishes, to talk it to death.
Oddly, according to research by the Library of Congress, death is far from certain for a bill that is subjected to filibusters, even the epochal filibusters. Many of those bills pass anyway.
In 1953, for example, the late Wayne Morse of Oregon set a record of 22 hours and 26 minutes when he spoke against the "tidelands" offshore oil bill. It went on to pass the Senate. Morse, by the way, called filibusters an "educational" process.
Four years later, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) found a portion of the civil rights bill of 1957 particularly loathsome. He took the floor on the evening of Aug. 28 to denounce a provision that barred jury trials.
Twenty-four hours and 18 minutes later, Thurmond subsided and went home for a nap, after setting the record that still stands. The bill passed.
Southern talkathons on various other civil rights measures since then have helped to give the filibuster a somewhat undeserved reputation as a tool used only by the conservative no-men.
It isn't quite so. Wayne Morse, of course, was variously a Democrat and a Republican, but he wasn't a conservative no-man. Nov were James Abourezk (D-S.D.) and Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who filibustered against a natural gas bill last fall.
The Abourezk-Metzenbaum caper took the craft of the filibuster an additional step. Applying the technique they learned from the late James Allen (D-Ala.), they conducted a filibuster-by-amendment.
That is, after the Senate invoked cloture - three-fifths of the senators voting to shut them up - the two liberals mounted a talkathon over dozens of amendments they had introduced.
They might still be talking in Majority Leader robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Vice President Mondale had not, by applying another parliamentary device, cut them off - an astounding move.
Allen was recognized as a master of the Senate rules. His filibusters made him a minor legend in his own time and there is no obvious successor on the scene, save perhaps Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)
William F. Hindenbrand, secretary of the minority in the Senate, reflected on the filibuster in a recent conversation:
"The senators from the South always knew the rules better. When Richard Russell [late Georgia Democrat] was here, he knew how to operate very smoothly. Jim Allen knew the rules backwards and forwards. He stayed on the floor long hours and learned.
"Allen used to say that no bill has gone down that shouldn't have gone down. If it is bad, it has no bussiness being enacted. This is the one way a bad bill can be stopped. It is a way of calling public attention to a bill.
"The filibuster has a place in the Senate rules. Without it, the 38 Republicans here would be steamrollered. If you ever take away the filibuster, I think the people would be the losers."
Mostly Republicans are conducting the current labor-law filibuster. Led by Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Richard Lugar (Ind.), they have mounted a talkathon that seems likely to keep the Senate tied in rhetorical knots for weeks.
Against the day their filibuster is cut off by a cloture vote, they have introduced more than 400 amendments to the bill and may add as many as 100 more. They talked of a filibuster on each amendment.