“Filibuster” is not a dirty word.
This may seem an obvious point. But it’s worth noting, given the campaign now underway on Capitol Hill to severely curtail a practice designed to ensure that legislation goes through a process of calm, reasoned debate.
In the Founders’ vision, the Senate was the “cooling saucer” that would temper legislation developed in the high-temperature House of Representatives. The filibuster grew out of this function. The United States, after all, is a constitutional republic, not a direct democracy. The majority can’t simply steamroll the minority. The minority gets a voice, too, in shaping legislation. And in the Senate, that voice is expressed at times through the filibuster.
As anyone who has seen “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” knows, the filibuster is intended to slow things down, whether it be a bill or a nomination. This isn’t to suggest that all filibusters involve the kind of theatrics actor Jimmy Stewart went through in the movie. Today, most filibusters are simply a declaration that one objects to a piece of legislation. They don’t necessitate marathon talking sessions.
Have some members of Congress abused the filibuster from time to time, using it primarily to leverage their own power? Yes. However, this has occurred largely in reaction to the majority leader’s tactic of “filling the amendment tree.” Essentially, this means the leader holds the floor long enough to offer a series of amendments to a particular bill -- and prevent other senators from amending it. If it’s wrong to abuse the filibuster, surely it’s wrong to fill the amendment tree.
But we don’t hear liberal senators decrying the conditions that may have led to some abuse. Instead, we hear only half the story.
“These filibusters have delayed things,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said. “They have obstructed the ability of the Senate to do its job.” Actually, the Senate’s job is to give full and due consideration to the views of both the majority and the minority. And when senators are blocked from participating -- as is their right under the Constitution -- then the Senate is failing at its job.
Yet how have Udall and other like-minded senators responded? With a movement to strictly limit opportunities to filibuster -- to make “talking filibusters,” such as the one in “Mr. Smith,” the only way for frustrated senators to slow things down and attempt to change legislation.
This movement is, at base, a power grab. And it’s one that, if successful, could come back to haunt Udall and his colleagues. Republicans already hold 47 seats in the Senate. What if, after the next election, that chamber flips from Democratic control, as the House already has? According to Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): “All [Democrats] need to do is watch [House Speaker] John Boehner over the next two years, and say, ‘Do I want that in the Senate?’” What goes around comes around.
What we really need is for the Senate to return to a period of genuine debate and discussion. The filibuster is a key element in this. As Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said in his Nov. 30 farewell address: “I can understand the temptation to change the rules that make the Senate so unique -- and, simultaneously, so frustrating. But whether such a temptation is motivated by a noble desire to speed up the legislative process, or by pure political expedience, I believe such changes would be unwise.”
Sen. Dodd was right. At a time when communication occurs more and more through quick sound-bites and dashed-off “tweets,” it’s more important than ever to engage in true and civil debate. That means slowing down and, yes, delaying things from time to time. It means preserving the filibuster, no matter how much it may inconvenience those in power.