In one recent conversation with some Americans I met on vacation, I mused about some differences between our politics and theirs, in particular the fact that the US Democrats, in spite of having almost 60% of the senate seats, were having a lot of trouble getting their way in anything there, while the Canadian Conservatives, with fewer than 50% of the seats in parliament (46%, in fact), were getting their way in pretty much everything.
Now, the reasons for the latter phenomenon are various and worth a good discussion on a political blog, but the reason for the former phenomenon is principally one: the filibuster. Or, these days, usually the mere intention of a filibuster. For (to simplify the matter a bit) one party can declare its intent to filibuster a specific bill, and that bill will be suspended until the filibuster threat is lifted, but other pending legislation will pass through without obstruction and without an actual filibuster happening. (Without the accepted practice of letting selective intent block specific measures, an actual filibuster would have to take place, and all legislation would come to a halt, backed up and stacked up like the fili being pressed against the wall by the big block of buster.) The only way to get around this is to have at least 60% of the seats voting to overrule the filibuster, which is a rarity. In this way, a minority can exercise control over a majority – sounds almost like an act of piracy, doesn’t it? Or of some coup to overthrow a democracy?
Ah, filibuster: makes me think of a nut (or perhaps about 42 of them, dedicated to keeping about 58 others from getting anything done). But that’s filbert. The buster makes me think of a naughty young boy, if only because buster is what my dad sometimes called me when I, as a young boy, was being naughty. Filibuster sounds sort of like someone who breaks a bronco, that is, breaks the will of a horse (subdues a maverick, perhaps?), in this case a filly. It also has a sound a bit like some spell being cast in a Harry Potter movie, or some magical being whiffling through the air and breaking through an object. Or perhaps a fuse burning down, followed by an explosion and echo. And it certainly has an air like swashbuckler or, perhaps, freebooter.
Well, it ought to be a little reminiscent of freebooter. The words are directly related. Both come from Dutch vrijbuiter, which means “freebooter” (of course), as in someone who gets free booty (I mean plunder, not the other kind). Filibuster came filtered through French and Spanish. But it was still used first of all to mean pirates. After that, in the mid-1800s, it referred to organized expeditions from the US that aimed to spark revolutions in Central America and the Spanish West Indies (what, did you think that sort of thing only started in the 20th century?). From either or both of these senses came the sense of practicing obstruction in a legislative assembly, showing up first as a verb in the mid-1800s and then as a noun before 1900.
But, as most of you probably know, it’s not just any kind of legislative obstruction. It is specifically holding the floor with lengthy speeches, hijacking debate (and thus the ship of state). It implies a huge amount of hot air and flapping jaws and so forth. Not quite wind in the sails and flapping banners, let alone gunpowder and clashing swords, but you use the weapons at hand. (Words are certainly better than a gutta-percha cane, which was once used against a senator on the senate floor…)
Now, the US Senate is not the only place where filibusters happen; far from it. We get them occasionally in Canada, too. But the rules and customs in the US Senate give filibusters rather more power and efficacy than they have in most places. Moreover, in order to change the rule requiring 60% of the senate to override a filibuster, you would need a vote of 60% of the senate… making it a tough filbert to bust.
Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting filibuster.