Friday, November 16, 2012

Filibuster Frenzy

In the classic movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," James Stewart's character stands on the floor of Congress and talks for eight hours to prevent a vote that he knows is wrong. The fictional portrayal of a representative of our country standing up and speaking nonstop for hours on end is a powerful image and a testament to one's test of will.

Back in 2010, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stood on the floor of the Senate for over eight hours to give a rousing speech on many issues, from political corruption to corporate power.

These examples are definitely exceptions to the rule. Most times, when a group in one of the houses of Congress wants to stop a bill, they will simply declare a filibuster and that will be it. They can sit back down and carry on with their game of solitaire. Based on the rate that filibusters and clotures (movements to break filibusters) have been increasing over the years, anything more than that is simply not feasible.

The problem is that the filibuster has become the standard response when either party tries to produce a piece of legislation. Even when something passes the House with solid, sometimes bipartisan majority, it can die in the Senate if one party decides to filibuster. That's because the only way to successfully break that is to have a 60-vote majority, which neither party has. It is the source of that insidious gridlock that we've all complained about the last two years. As usual, both parties are complicit in this, but seeing as how Republicans have been much more aggressive in their disruption of Senate business, the blame largely falls on them.

But Senate Democrats are trying to change the rules of the filibuster by making it into a...well, a filibuster. The proposed rules would force any congressman or woman to stand up and actually speak for the length of their filibuster. No more quick motions to block a bill, no more five-minute complaining sessions. If a senator wants to filibuster a bill, they have to do it properly.

It could slow things down even more, perhaps dramatically so. But the Democrats, ironically, are banking on the laziness of their fellow senators and the hope that filibuster rates would drop off if people had to actually work at them rather than simply say a few words and get their obstructionism going.

Of course, the new rules are unlikely to pass, even if they would make for real live debate and discussion. Rather, the new rules would likely be, dare I say, filibustered.

Perhaps in the future, we will see more Mr. Smith's passing out on the floor of Congress after literally standing up for their beliefs for so long that they can't see straight. That kind of pure, unadulterated conviction would certainly be inspiring. And reforms to the filibuster would make it more a tool against corruption than a hyper-partisan big stick for political idealists. We need checks and balances against corruption and abuse of power, not obstruction at the expense of a working government.

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