The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A House filibuster like the one Nancy Pelosi gave hasn’t happened in more than a century

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Feb. 7 gave a speech on the House floor about “dreamers” that lasted more than eight hours. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

At 10:04 Wednesday morning, House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took the floor for a one-minute speech — and ended up talking for eight hours and 10 minutes.

Pelosi now holds the record for the longest speech on the House floor, historians say. It's certainly the longest speech in a century. Technically, she broke the rules by even seizing the floor that long. The House more or less banned filibusters in the 1890s, said congressional rules expert Joshua Huder at Georgetown University.

Filibusters used to be a frequent thing, but a particularly nasty partisan fight changed that. In the 1890s, the majority party was frustrated that the minority party was holding up negotiations by refusing to provide a quorum.

“Minority members would sit there silently not responding to the quorum call,” Huder said. “So they were put in the ledger as not present even though they were standing in the chamber.”

So the majority party simply changed the rules: no purposefully slowing down debate.

[Nancy Pelosi’s filibuster-style speech tops eight hours in bid to force immigration votes]

The House is a majority-rule place, so whatever rule the majority wants to pass, it can. Which means minority parties have had to find creative ways to hold up negotiations.

And filibusters have happened since they’ve been more or less banned. In 1909, James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark of Missouri held the floor for five hours and 15 minutes to speak against a tariff overhaul, according to the official House historian. But in the purest sense of a filibuster, not even that comes close to what Pelosi did. The historian's office said:

“It’s important to note that although Clark held the floor for the duration, he was repeatedly interrupted during his remarks.”

According to our Washington Post team who was watching Pelosi, she barely took time to unwrap a mint several hours in and was not interrupted once. She kept talking for more than eight hours straight.

And the reason she was allowed to speak at all? Congress gives deference to the leaders of each party, so she and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) each get to speak longer than the one minute allotted other members in a debate. It’s not unusual, in really passionate moments, for these leaders to stretch their one minute to 45.

[Nancy Pelosi’s House filibuster just increased the chances for a government shutdown]

Pelosi, at 77, may also be one of the oldest lawmakers to conduct such a lengthy filibuster. She has certainly got to be one of the first — if not the first — doing it while wearing four-inch heels.

I asked Huder whether he thought House filibusters are back now. He said no, for the same reason they went away: Republicans are in the majority in the House, so they can just vote to change the rules to ban leaders from talking for hours on end.

But as Pelosi underscored today, that hasn’t stopped members of the minority party, ever since there’s been one, when they are determined to find a way around the rules.