Paul Greenberg

Any discussion of whether to end, mend, or generally fiddle with the filibuster might well begin by trying to understand what it is, and why such a practice developed in the U.S. Senate. The filibuster is a way to protect the rights and interest of the minority by allowing its members to speak without being cut off by a simple majority vote. Instead, it takes a supermajority to close debate and proceed to a vote -- 60 votes under the current rule.

The filibuster is one more part of the intricate web of checks and balances undergirding and expanding all those in the Constitution itself, for the Founding Fathers were not afraid of complexity, especially when it came to dividing and controlling government power. It may have been Madison who pointed out that the danger of tyranny is always greatest wherever power is greatest. In a democracy, he noted, it is the majority that has the most power, and therefore should be most restrained.

The filibuster is one of those restraints. It is a product of long tradition and ingrained custom, which are other terms for the weight of practical experience over the years and centuries. Which is why time-honored practices, like the filibuster, should not be lightly cast aside.

The Senate is the home of the filibuster because it was designed by the Founders to be the more deliberative half of the legislative process--the saucer in which the boiing-hot tea of public passions is allowed to simmer before being served up. Whatever the transient winds of politics and whichever party control the levers of power at the shifting moment.

Sometimes it is the Republicans who resort to the filibuster, sometimes the Democrats, depending on whether they're in the majority or minority at the time. There's no better way to hone one's appreciation of the rights of the minority than being in one. The same senator who rails against the "obstructionism" of the filibuster rule when his party is in the majority may take the floor to hail the wisdom of that same rule when his party is reduced to a minority.

It's a good thing the balance of power swings back and forth in this republic; it can give folks a whole different point of view, fleshing out abstract theory with felt experience. It's called putting yourself in the other fellow's shoes. Or being put there by the voters. Which can be an educational experience. It encourages tolerance, even empathy. It may give even politicians a certain historical perspective, which is just what this perennial debate over the filibuster needs from time to time.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.