US Senate Adopts the “Guillotine!”

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A Brief History

On March 8, 1917, the United States Senate voted to adopt a procedure designed to limit the maddening practice of filibuster in Senate proceedings, a practice called cloture, or colloquially “the guillotine!”  The rule was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate, with a vote of 76 for the measure and only 3 votes against adopting cloture.  Perhaps you have heard of this term many times in recent years as the US Senate battles through tough times for bi-partisan actions and neither side having a clear majority.

Digging Deeper

As you may note from the date of the adoption of cloture, the World was wrapped up in a rather all consuming crisis, specifically World War I.  US President Woodrow Wilson implored the Senate to adopt a means by which the filibuster that could bring the Senate to a screeching halt be countered in a way to keep the legislative process moving in light of critical world developments. During the crisis precipitated by German U-boat (submarine) warfare in the Atlantic, President Wilson sought legislation to allow US merchant ships to be armed for protection, and a group of a dozen anti-war Senators successfully filibustered the proposed bill, directly leading to the adoption of the “cloture” procedure to circumvent stifling filibusters.  The invoking of cloture did not take place until 1919 when it was used to end a filibuster of debate to adopt the  Treaty of Versailles.

The way cloture works, is that at least 16 Senators have to vote to invoke cloture on an issue in order to end a filibuster.  Once invoked, the Senate can vote on an issue with a 3/5ths majority needed, or in today’s terms, 60 of the 100 Senators voting to accept an issue.  One area not covered by the cloture procedure is debate about Senate rules.  In the case of a filibuster over a proposed change in Senate rules, cloture is not allowed.  An interesting aspect of cloture is that a full “Senate day” or work-day must pass between filing the petition for cloture and the subsequent vote.  Cloture must be presented by the Senate majority leader.  In the matter of changing Senate rules, a 2/3rds majority is required instead of the usual 3/5ths.  In the case of Presidential nomination for appointments, a mere simple majority is required for adoption, a fairly recent change that was enacted in 2013, and expanded in 2017 to include Presidential nominations to the Supreme Court.  (With only a simple majority needed to pass a nominee to an appointment to the Supreme Court, the bi-partisan nature demanded of a 3/5ths or 2/3rds majority makes partisan appointments much more possible in the event a single party controls both the Presidency and the Senate.)

The cloture procedure, when invoked, allows only an additional 30 hours of debate on a subject, with individual Senators limited to a maximum of 1 hour floor time apiece.  The addition and subtraction of amendments to the issue at hand are also greatly limited in the interest of moving things along without distracting tactics.

So why call the procedure cloture?  Because the French term, “Clôture,” means “the act of terminating something,” in this case, meaning the termination of obstructive debate tactics, specifically, the filibuster.  Other parliamentary countries also have such measures referred to as “closure” or “cloture,” and of course, by its nick-name, the guillotine!

Question for students (and subscribers): Should the US Senate simply require a simple majority vote on all matters?  Why or why not?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Gilgram, David. Filibusters, Cloture and Holds in the Senate. Nova Science Publishers, Inc, 2012.

Wawro, Gregory and Eric Shickler. Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the U.S. Senate. Princeton University Press, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer of 16 November 1919, reporting the first use of cloture by the United States Senate, is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.