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Filibusters and unicorns explained

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wednesday our friends at The Fix suggested that “filibusters are unicorns,” reasoning that since a filibuster is difficult to define or measure, “It doesn’t really exist.” Never mind that unicorns are precisely defined (horse + horn) and measured (known population: zero); the column raises an interesting general point—how do we measure fuzzy concepts?—and a specific challenge: how do we measure filibustering?

At the core of politics is a set of fuzzy but important words: freedom, power, justice, happiness. Political economy yields more fuzzy words: poverty, inequality, unemployment, inflation. For each of these words we have working definitions and measures while maintaining lively discussions about whether we have gotten the definition or measure right. Should we abandon these concepts because they are difficult to define and measure?

Not if we listen to the philosopher. Aristotle warned us early on that,

[F]ine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature…it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

This imprecision and making-it-up-as-we-go-along is worth it, though, because, Arisotle says, political science is the alpha discipline:

since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man.

With that in mind: filibustering is more important than, say, unicorns, because as currently practiced it adds a fourth veto point to the U.S. legislative system after the constitutionally designated president, House majority, and Senate majority. It is very difficult to define and measure, since it takes a variety of forms across state legislatures and U.S. Congress history. In my book,  I define filibustering by its intent and effect: “legislative behavior (or a threat of such behavior) intended to delay a collective decision for strategic gain.” For the modern Senate, I identify filibusters by scanning several media sources for references to filibusters in the Senate (see summary & charts here).

Did Ted Cruz and friends “filibuster”? No. Their behavior did not increase the length of time required to decide whether the Senate would consider the House-passed continuing resolution to keep the government open. The cloture vote on the motion to take up this bill was set for noon Wednesday whether Cruz spoke or not.  The real filibuster, in this case, was the refusal of senators to allow a a vote on whether or not it is a good idea to discuss the continuing resolution, which was the question before the Senate on Tuesday and Wednesday.


Gregory Koger is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami. He specializes in Congress, political parties, and elections. He also blogs at Mischief of Faction.



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