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Little Group of Willful Men

“Little group of willful men” is a reference to President Woodrow Wilson’s dispute with a group of anti-war congressmen in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War Two.

The dispute led to the introduction of a cloture rule in the U.S. Senate.

Origin of “Little Group of Willful Men”

In early 1917, American sentiment was increasingly in favor of entering the war in Europe. A bill which would arm American merchant ships was making its way through Congress; the law would give the ships the power to defend themselves against German submarine attacks. The bill easily passed the House, but when it reached the Senate it was blocked by a small group opposed to the war.

The group was led by Senator Robert La Follette, of Wisconsin, and by Senator George Norris, of Nebraska. On March 4, 1917, those senators organized a filibuster so that the bill could not come up for a vote. That’s when President Wilson spoke up. Angered, the president said that the “Senate of the United States is 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.”

Wilson closed his statement by urging the Senate to adopt a cloture rule, which would set a limit on the length of debate so that bills could not be blocked indefinitely by filibuster. Wilson said, “the only remedy is that the rules of the Senate shall be so altered that it can act. The country can be relied upon to draw the moral. I believe that the Senate can be relied on to supply the means of action and save the country from disaster.”

Days later, on March 8, 1917, Congress met in a special session and agreed to a compromise — a rule that would preserve debate but would allow for cloture in the case of a super majority. The rule allowed the Senate to end debate only when a two thirds majority agreed to do so. It continues to be rare for the Senate to invoke cloture, although it has become far more common in the 21st century. The rules on cloture have also changed so that only 60 Senators are required in order to end debate.

The practice of filibustering dates back at least as far as ancient Rome. The Roman senator Cato the Younger famously spoke until the sun went down in order to stall votes on issues he opposed – notably, Cato filibustered a vote that would have allowed Julius Caesar to return to Rome in 60 BC.

Writing in the Atlantic, Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni argued that the Founding Fathers were aware of the Roman filibuster and that they saw it as a threat; for them, the filibuster was yet another way for a minority to dominate a majority. Goodman and Soni wrote,

“when the filibuster starts to become the rule, rather than the exception, the minority may find itself with more and more power in a Congress that matters less and less. Minority rule will ultimately mean more power for the presidency, the lawyers who draft executive orders, unelected judges, and the federal bureaucracy. Placing limits on the filibuster is the wisest course for any senator who cares about the institution’s future.”