I remember when I was a child, and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" was on T.V. one evening. I liked Jimmy Stewart (because I liked "Harvey") and so I watched it. They got to the scene where he conducts a filibuster, and I didn't understand what was going on. He just talked and talked for hours on end, losing his voice, getting tired... it was dramatic, but weird.
My mother explained it. Senators can, if they want to, simply keep talking forever and keep other people from voting on things. They do this when they would otherwise lose the vote.
I remember how amazed I was. It seemed like something schoolkids would do... "I'm gonna hold my breath 'til I turn blue" sort of thing. I could not believe adults did this, especially adults in the government.
I recently read that, in 1975, the Senate decided to allow for filibusters without anyone actually doing the continuous-talking thing. A senator just says he wants to filibuster, and the issue is set aside so the senate can get to other things. It's a filibuster without a filibuster.
It feels like the schoolyard again. "Hey gang, let's pretend that I talked forever. You be the other guys..." How in the world did this ever get started?
Looking around the internet, the argument seems to be threefold:
- The Senate is meant to be a collegial, deliberative body, where everyone acts in the best interest of the body overall.
- The process is meant to be open-ended, to ensure that legislation is adequately thought-out before it is presented to the president.
- The filibuster is one tool to prevent "the tyranny of the majority", to ensure that minority points of view are represented and not steam-rolled by the majority.