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Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, this is The World. Lawmakers in Austin, Texas stayed up late last night thanks to State Representative Wendy Davis who staged a filibuster to prevent a bill restricting abortion from passing before a midnight deadline expired. Texas republicans tried to push the bill through anyway, but eventually, the bill missed that deadline.
Filibusters are pretty common here in the U.S., but it's a tradition that often strikes outsiders as strange. We wanted to find out more about filibusters. Where do they come from, and what other countries, if any, use them? So we contacted Jerry Loewenberg, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. I started by asking him about the rules of the filibuster.
Jerry Loewenberg: They are that you have to stick to the subject, that you have to hold the floor, that therefore you can't sit down. And that is physically a very difficult objective to achieve. The principle is that the filibuster preserves the right of unlimited debate, and unlimited debate means that once you hold the floor you can keep it.
Hills: So what other countries have filibusters?
Loewenberg: In the United Kingdom, in Great Britain, the filibuster existed until the 1880's. So, over 120 years ago the British Parliament enacted legislation to make filibusters more or less impossible. And what happened there, and this is quite instructive, is that an Irish minority wanted to defeat the majority effort to restrict the independence of Ireland, and eventually the majority said this is undemocratic. We've got to have a rule that can close debate.
Hills: Is there any area outside of Europe that has it, or is it something that sort of came out of British parliamentary tradition and we haven't?
Loewenberg: It came out of British parliamentary tradition, and in Europe, by and large, a majority rule has triumphed against the right of minorities to speak endlessly. That's true in France, it's true in Italy, it's true in Germany. It's true, as I said a moment ago, in Great Britain. So, to put it very simply, the question is, to what extent do you allow a minority to keep a majority from acting? And it used to be that minorities were given very broad opportunity to do that. And with the advent of democracy, let me say, the right of minorities to block the majority was gradually diminished and eventually very, very limited.
Hills: What's the most famous filibuster you know of?
Loewenberg: Well, the filibuster that started all of this occurred in the Senate in 1917, and that was an attempt to filibuster American involvement in the First World War And since it was a foreign policy issue, that is what led to motions for closing debate. The most dramatic ones politically were those that stopped Civil Rights legislation in the United States.
Hills: Jerry Loewenberg, political science professor emeritus at the University of Iowa. He's been speaking to us from Iowa City. Thank you so much.
Loewenberg: Thank you.