The rules of the United States Senate allow for unlimited debate — a senator can speak literally forever, if he so chooses, unless three-fifths of the chambers’ members vote to end debate on the issue altogether. This feature (bug?) of the Senate’s rules is typically called a filibuster, and history has seen a few notable ones. In 1917, Wisconsin Senator Bob La Follette led the filibuster of a bill which would have armed merchant ships, effectively placing the U.S. into World War I and aligned with the UK. Forty years later, Strom Thurmond, then the Senator from South Carolina, attempted to derail the Civil Rights Act of 1957, unsuccessfully, by speaking for over 24 hours. And there have been a handful of other filibusters — hardly ones that will be easily recalled by future generations — that featured a Senator taking up ten or more hours on the floor.
Doing so requires a commitment to staying within the Senate chamber — if you leave the floor, your cede control of it to the next speaker. While there are work-arounds, this means that a filibustering Senator is trapped where he or she is, unable to leave for even a few minutes. This also means that he or she can’t take a break to pee. Just ask Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who ended a roughly 13 hour-long filibuster earlier this year by stating “I would go for another 12 hours to try to break Strom Thurmond’s record, but I’ve discovered that there are some limits to filibustering and I’m going to have to go take care of one of those in a few minutes here.” (In case you think he was referring to something else, rest assured he was talking about peeing. The next day, the New York Times explained Paul’s joke in a parenthetical aside: “Mr. Paul could not leave the floor to use the bathroom, making his filibuster at a certain point seem less a standoff between the senator from Kentucky and the administration than a battle between Mr. Paul and his own bladder.”)
So what did Thurmond and the others do? Did they hold it in? Not quite.
Thurmond, per mental_floss, “took advance steam baths to sweat out all excess fluids, and then made an intern stand by with a bucket during the filibuster, just in case” (with the idea being that the senator would keep one foot on the Senate floor while relieving himself just out of view). He also got an assist from fellow Senator Barry Goldwater, who, according to TIME, asked Thurmond to temporarily yield the floor to him, with the understanding that he’d yield it right back after Thurmond could take a quick break. Thurmond agreed, and Goldwater carried through with his promise after Thurmond returned.
Others — in different legislative bodies — found no such loophole available. In 1977, a Texas State Senator named Bill Meier spent 43 consecutive hours (!) controlling the floor, hoping to prevent a bill which would make workplace injury claims confidential. (He failed to prevent the bill’s passage.) Per the Pegasus News, Meier outfitted himself with something he called an “astronaut bag” — imaginations will have to suffice here — and had a system in place to empty the bag when full. As the Pegasus News explained, Meier worked with the state’s Lt. Governor, Bill Hobby, who “arranged to take a message from the House, a maneuver that allowed Meier to briefly leave the floor without having to end his filibuster. Meier used the time to run to the ladies’ restroom, the facility closest to his desk, and empty his waste bag. Two sergeants-at-arms went with him to ensure he never sat down, he said.” (Apparently in Texas, you’re allowed to leave the floor during your filibuster. You just can’t sit. This seems like a slam-dunk discrimination argument in the future.)
And then, there’s the video above, via a Mother Jones report on filibuster peeing habits. In 2001, Irene Smith, an alderwoman from St. Louis wanted to take a bathroom break, but was told by the aldermanic president James Shrewsbury that she’d have to yield the floor if she left it. Others immediately accused Shrewsbury of discriminating against women (“she just can’t walk back there like the men”) and later, African-Americans. Smith’s aides brought curtains and a trash can into the room, and allegedly, Smith took care of business while taking care of business. Why “allegedly?” As KMOX in St. Louis reported, “police filed a citation, saying Smith violated a city code barring lewd conduct such as public urination, though the sheets prevented any clear proof of the act.”
And thankfully, no one thought to confiscate the trash can.
From the Archives: Mr. Pee Hands: Why some Major League Baseball players should be able to find futures in the United States Senate, perhaps?
Related: An astronaut bag… of sorts. Not in a gross way, don’t worry.