Democrats tells us that the filibuster tradition is two hundred years old, making it almost as old as the United States itself. Just Google the phrase "the filibuster tradition" and up will pop a number of sites in which it is confidently stated that the filibuster tradition goes back to the earliest days of the Senate.I think I said that.
This appeal to the venerability of the filibuster tradition has been used by the Democrats in order to attack those Republicans who are currently threatening to abolish this tradition. How, it is asked, can men who claim to be conservative dare to lay hands upon one of our oldest traditions of legislative self-governance? Aren't conservatives supposed to have respect for hoary ancestral traditions? . . .
To discover the answer to this question, I turned off my computer, got out my battered edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica, and shortly discovered that the filibuster tradition does not have quite the pedigree that current Democrat polemists have assigned to it. "From 1789 to 1828 the presiding officer of the senate…had, in practice, the unappealable power to stop superfluous motions and tedious speeches, and evidence seems to indicate that this power was used by vice-presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr."
Note that during this period there was no need for a supermajority of the senate to terminate debate on a question. You did not need two thirds of the Senators to cut off debate, or even 60% of them -- all you needed was to have the presiding officer of the senate declare that enough was enough, and that ended it. . .
The year was 1825, and the Vice President was John C. Calhoun, the brilliant South Carolinian who became the father of the doctrine of nullification. The Senator was John Randolph, more famous for his career in the House of Representative, and one of the most bizarre and arresting characters in American history. . .
[Randolph's speech] . . . went on for three months until the day came when Randolph rose to speak on a particular resolution offered to the Senate, and to use it as an occasion to utter a series of extraordinary insults against both the sitting President, John Quincy Adams, and his Secretary of State, Henry Clay. [T]he result was a thwarting of the democratic process that the Senators themselves found sufficiently objectionable to introduce a new set of rules in 1828. Calhoun's refusal to rule Randolph's speeches out of order was met with an explicit acknowledgement that the presiding officer of the Senate had the power to shut up a man like Randolph, and, even more importantly, the Vice President's decisions on such matters could now be appealed to the entire Senate itself. Finally, there was a rule of relevancy that would have eliminated the kind of filibustering practices that became the trademark of twentieth century politicians like Huey Long, such as reading the recipes from cook books.
This was how things remained until in 1872 Vice President Schuyler Colfax made a ruling that "under the practice of the Senate the presiding officer could not restrain a Senator in remarks which the Senator considers pertinent to the pending matter."
Okay, so the filibuster is not a two hundred year old tradition.