The World’s Longest Filibuster

Do you know who holds the world record for the longest filibuster?

If you answered either Senator Ted Cruz or Senator Paul Ryan, you would have been mistaken. True, both employed the tactic of filibuster in recent times. Cruz spoke on the Senate floor for 21 hours and 19 minutes, to advocate defunding of Obamacare. Ryan held the floor with a 13-hour talkathon against drones and 10 1/2 hours against federal phone surveillance.

The U.S. record-holder remains Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes, to hold off a vote on a civil rights bill in 1957. It was the heyday of the Southern Caucus, which consistently outmaneuvered northern liberals in the struggle over civil rights, and the filibuster was their ultimate weapon.

Yet, even Thurmond is a laconic also-ran compared to the world’s new record-holder — the opposition liberal Minjoo Party of South Korea, whose members filibustered for eight days, from February 23 to March 1! Their cause was the defeat of an “anti-terrorism” bill sponsored by the ruling Saenuri party, which the Minjoos denounced — and re-denounced — for granting sweeping surveillance powers to the government.

A Canadian party had set the previous world record for combined filibustering — 57 hours — in 2011.

Practitioners of filibuster in the U.S. have typically been seen as an irritating anachronism, the ultimate time-wasters, of a legislative branch that is in any case regularly accused of inefficiency and detachment from reality. The racist politics of filibusterers like Strom Thurmond also cast a stigma of intolerance onto an otherwise color-blind parliamentary tool, designed to protect the right of any minority to be heard. (Historically, it has also been wielded by such liberals as Senator George Norris of Nebraska in the struggle against arming American merchant ships, proposed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917.)

Even those who agree with the filibusterer’s position often express impatience with the tactic, and recent years have seen a series of attempts to limit or abolish the practice.

However, in South Korea the attitude appears rather different. The filibuster has made a comeback there, brought back into use in 2012 as a remedy for the violent fights that often broke out in the legislature. Instead of throwing chairs at their opponents, the parliamentarians can now hurl invective — all they want — at their antagonists.

The public seems to like it, too. Not only do the smaller parties get a chance to control the proceedings, but in a nice twist, it has added an element of participatory democracy as well. Some citizens reportedly sent in special content of their own to keep orators going, letting the people join in the filibuster.

President Barack Obama’s coming nomination of a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court has touched off rumblings of filibuster. Obama says he will insist on using his constitutional power of appointment, which does not expire until after the next elections; and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declared his intention to block a vote on his nominee, whoever it is.

Senator Cruz has said that he would filibuster again, to stop the nomination. “This should be a decision for the people,” Cruz said. “Let the election decide it. If the Democrats want to replace this nominee, they need to win the election.”

Obama said the Senate should “fulfill its responsibility to give that person [the nominee] a fair hearing and a timely vote.” Until Scalia’s seat is filled, the Court is split down the middle between liberals and conservatives, deadlock looms, and the pressure to confirm a nominee builds.

But the president’s argument against a filibuster was undermined when Republicans recalled that as a senator himself Obama participated in an ill-starred filibuster against the appointment to the Supreme Court of the conservative Samuel Alito. The White House’s attempt to differentiate between this filibuster and that filibuster left Republicans unpersuaded.

The legitimacy of parliamentary stalling is in the eye of the beholder. Those whose cause the filibuster serves champion it as a bulwark of democracy; those who oppose that cause revile it as an impediment to progress.

Yet, for all the hackles it has raised, the filibuster has had remarkable staying power. Not enough votes can be mustered to impose permanent cloture on it. It is too valuable as the last resort of the minority voice in a majority system.

But even the patience of the South Koreans wore thin. As the filibuster entered its second week, delaying the passage of bills on human rights and electoral districts for April’s general election, criticism mounted. The Minjoos relinquished the podium, and the government’s bill passed.

It is a useful reminder for U.S. senators. The filibuster is a powerful parliamentary weapon, but it must be used, shall we say, judiciously. Especially in a country as full of impatient people as America.