Friday, September 4, 2009

The Filibuster

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: 
  1. The Senate is meant to be a collegial, deliberative body, where everyone acts in the best interest of the body overall.
  2. The process is meant to be open-ended, to ensure that legislation is adequately thought-out before it is presented to the president.
  3. 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.
I think point #1 has been essentially destroyed by our polarized political system, and also by the fact that political campaigns are so expensive now (courting big money into the process). Senators now represent monied interests, or they don't get reelected very often.

Point #2 was always meant to be "within reasonable limits" which is why the rest of the senate can vote to end debate (called a "cloture motion") with a 60-vote supermajority. I really do not believe that "open-ended" was ever meant to be used as "forever, until you submit to my point".

Point #3 makes me wonder where the judicial branch fits in. If the minority feels that the majority is forcing their will in an inappropriate way, they have the courts to argue this. If they simply feel they've been outvoted, well... welcome to democracy and sit down.

Can the filibuster be destroyed? Yes, it turns out. With a procedural vote of 51, the senate can vote to make it illegal. Why don't they do this?

First, the party in power is afraid they won't be able to do it when they are out of power. That seems obvious. What's less obvious is that the party in power wants to be able to continue to use the "we need 60 votes, really" idea as a fund-raising tool, even after they have achieved a majority.

This is absurd. We need to pressure our senators to get rid of the filibuster.

Also, senators should not be allowed to cut in line, put gum under their desks, or draw comics in the margins of their legislature. Those who do should have to wear the pointy hat and sit in the corner, or write "I will conduct myself as an actual statesman" 100 times on the blackboard.


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