The idea of a filibuster is most closely associated with the United States Senate, which has perhaps turned the practice into an art form. Filibusters also have been used in other legislatures around the world, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, with varying rules of decorum but with the same goal: stalling a vote. A filibuster is an obstructionist tactic which is used to prevent the passage of a motion, such as a bill. Within the US Senate, a filibuster usually takes the form of an extended speech, as the Senate offers the right of unlimited discussion and debate to Senators. Senators are also not restricted to the topic at hand, and famous filibusters have included readings from phone books, recitations of poetry, and discussions of Southern recipes.
The roots of the word are almost as fascinating as the practice itself. "Filibuster" is related to a Dutch word, vrijbuiter, which means "pirate." The Dutch word may actually come from "free booter," an English term for a pirate. In the 1800s, Americans filibustered extensively in the Caribbean and South America, attempting to seize political power and material goods. The term was adopted to talk about legislators who "pirated" the spirit of debate in Congress.
In the US, the rules for filibusters differ between the House and the Senate. In the House, rules were established in 1842 that limited the length of time a debate could continue, effectively ending filibusters in the House, as a filibuster basically is an endless debate by definition. In the Senate, the rules allow any representative or a group of representatives to speak as long as they want to about anything until 60 of 100 members on the floor invoke "cloture," which is a majority vote that forces an end to the discussion.
In most cases, a group of Senators creates a filibustering tag team, allowing one Senator to take over the floor when the first one tires. Preparations for a filibuster can be intense, and may include things like cots in the hallway of the Senate. One of the most famous filibustering Senators was Huey Long, who fought to protect the rights of the poor. The record for the longest filibuster, however, goes to Senator Strom Thurmond, who held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes in opposition against the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
While a filibuster can sometimes be entertaining from the outside, it is very serious business within the Senate. Political parties have been known to threaten filibuster over controversial legislation or Executive appointments, because they are fully aware that a prolonged filibuster will cause the Senate's daily business to grind to a halt. The decision to lead a filibuster is not taken lightly, and the Senate will usually compromise to avoid one.