Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 | 2 a.m.
We’re having a big debate about the Senate filibuster. It is possible you hadn’t heard, what with the onset of the holiday season, the fiscal cliff and several unexpected plot turns on “Homeland” to worry about. There’s just so much a person can handle.
In Washington, it’s all people talk about. OK, not all. But there’s a lot of rancor. John Cornyn, the new Senate minority whip, predicted to Politico that if Democrats went forward with their plans to change the filibuster rules, “It will shut down the Senate.”
If the Senate did shut down, the country would not necessarily notice much difference. Last week, there was a herculean attempt to pass The Sportsmen’s Act, a large, bipartisan mix of hunting and conservation provisions that has been waiting around for ages. The bill seemed to be sailing toward success when it got entangled in a fight over the price of duck stamps — a kind of hunting license and collector item the federal government sells to raise money for conservation.
“It gives the Department of Interior, unelected bureaucrats, power to decide how much to charge for a duck stamp,” announced Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. This was certainly a powerful argument — first, the duck stamps; next, the death panels. But supporters suspected that the real issue was partisan ire over the filibuster fight.
The bill took a swan dive on a parliamentary motion. Life went on.
“A deep dysfunction has set in,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who’s a leader of the fix-the-filibuster movement. “We had an average of 60-plus filibusters each of the four years I’ve been here. That’s more than an average of one a week.”
Way more than one a week given the Senate’s vacation schedule.
Filibusters are defined in the national psyche by “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a 1939 James Stewart movie about a naive hometown hero who gets appointed to the seat of a deceased senator. Corrupt special interests want to put a dam on a piece of land that Mr. Smith wants for a boys’ camp. Complications ensue. (At one point, our hero compliments his secretary, Jean Arthur, by saying, “I mean, for a woman, you’ve done awfully well.”)
Then comes the filibuster, in which Mr. Smith stands alone on the Senate floor, taking advantage of a rule that allows a senator to stop everything for as long as he can keep talking. Envoys from faraway dictatorships pack the gallery “to see what they can’t see at home — democracy in action.” Mr. Smith talks for nearly 24 hours! Nobody mentions the miracle of the lack of bathroom breaks.
That was the filibuster then — when almost nobody actually used it. These days, it’s just a rule that makes it impossible to do almost anything without the concurrence of 60 members. Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, wants to tweak it, using a parliamentary device that would allow him to change things with a normal 51-vote majority.
Republicans are outraged! Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who once made news by trying to hold up a budget bill with an amendment outlawing federally financed Viagra for sex offenders, said Reid was going to “destroy the place.”
To be fair, Republicans are afraid that if they don’t have the power to bring things to a grinding halt, the Democratic majority will ignore them. They point to a parliamentary procedure Reid uses to keep them from offering amendments on important bills. This is known as “filling the tree.” It should not be confused with “trimming the tree,” which is much more enjoyable.
Democrats, in turn, point to the time Sen. Rand Paul tried to hold up a flood insurance bill with a fetal personhood amendment.
But the important question is, how do you feel about changing the filibuster? If this issue comes up over a family dinner during the holiday, what are you going to say? This presumes, of course, that none of your relatives is younger than 40, because otherwise the filibuster conversation is probably not going anywhere.
Here’s the basic deal: There are, at minimum, six points in the life of any fledgling bill when the minority party can file filibuster paperwork that will stop all progress unless the majority can round up 60 votes. The Democrats want to eliminate a few. Also, they’d like to replicate the “Mr. Smith” rules. No more procedural shortcuts. As Sen. Richard Durbin put it, “you want to stop the business of the Senate, by goodness’ sake, park your fanny on the floor of the Senate and speak.”
This would be very hard on the minority. Although everybody in the Senate likes to talk, very few actually like to hang around the Senate itself.
“The talking filibuster — it’s the way people think it works already,” Oregon’s Merkley said.
The old system certainly worked for Mr. Smith. At the end of the movie, a corrupt senior senator was overwhelmed with guilt and raced out of the chamber yelling “Every word of it is true! I’m not fit for office.” If only that happened in the real world, I believe we would protect the filibuster with our last breath.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.