Cloture Definition

How to Break a Filibuster Using the U.S. Senate Rulebook

President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in getting a cloture rule in the Senate.
The Senate first adopted the cloture rule in 1917 after President Woodrow Wilson called for the implementation of a procedure to end debate on any given matter. Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images News

Cloture is a procedure used occasionally in the U.S. Senate to break a filibuster. Cloture, or Rule 22, is the only formal procedure in Senate parliamentary rules, in fact, that can force an end to the stalling tactic. It allows the Senate to limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours of debate.

Cloture History

The Senate first adopted the cloture rule in 1917 after President Woodrow Wilson called for the implementation of a procedure to end debate on any given matter. The first cloture rule allowed for such a move with the support of a two-thirds majority in the upper chamber of Congress.

Cloture was first used two years later, in 1919, when the Senate was debating the Treaty of Versailles, the peace agreement between Germany and the Allied Powers that officially ended World War I. Lawmakers successfully invoked cloture to end a lengthy filibuster on the matter.

Perhaps the most well known use of cloture came when the Senate invoked the rule after a 57-day filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Southern lawmakers stalled debate over the measure, which included a ban on lynching, until the Senate mustered enough votes for cloture.

Reasons for Cloture Rule

The cloture rule was adopted at a time when deliberations in the Senate had ground to a halt, frustrating President Wilson during a time of war.

At the end of the session in 1917, lawmakers filibustered for 23 days against Wilson's proposal to arm merchant ships, according to the Senate Historian's office. The delay tactic also hampered efforts to pass other important legislation.

President Calls for Cloture

Wilson railed against the Senate, calling it "the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible."

As a result, the Senate wrote and passed the original cloture rule on March 8, 1917. In addition to ending filibusters, the new rule allowed each senator an additional hour to speak after invoking cloture and before voting on a bill's final passage.

Despite Wilson's influence in instituting the rule, cloture was invoked only five times over the course of the following four and a half decades.

Cloture Impact

Invoking cloture guarantees that a Senate vote on the bill or amendment being debated will eventually happen. The House does not have a similar measure.

When cloture is invoked, senators are also required to engage in debate that is "germane" to the legislation being discussed. The rule contains a clause the any speech following the invocation of cloture must be "on the measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate."

The cloture rule thereby prevents lawmakers from merely stalling for another hour by, say, reciting the Declaration of Independence or reading names from a phone book.

Cloture Majority

The majority needed to invoke cloture in the Senate remained two-thirds, or 67 votes, of the 100-member body from the rule's adoption in 1917 until 1975, when the number of votes needed was reduced to just 60.

To being the cloture process, at least 16 members of the Senate must sign a cloture motion or petition that states: "We, the undersigned Senators, in accordance with the provisions of Rule XXII of the Standing Rules of the Senate, hereby move to bring to a close the debate upon (the matter in question)."

Cloture Frequency

Cloture was rarely invoked in the early 1900s and mid-1900s. The rule was used only four times, in fact, between 1917 and 1960. Cloture became more common only in the late 1970s, according to records kept by the Senate.

The procedure was used a record 187 times in the 113th Congress, which met in 2013 and 2014 during President Barack Obama's second term in the White House.

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Murse, Tom. "Cloture Definition." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Murse, Tom. (2023, April 5). Cloture Definition. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "Cloture Definition." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).