Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012 | 2 a.m.
In the classic movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a young, idealistic senator stages a filibuster in his fight against corruption, speaking for more than 23 hours before he faints on the floor.
That scene is a dramatized version of the filibuster, the best known of the Senate’s arcane rules. As portrayed in the movie, a senator would take the floor and remain speaking to stop the Senate from doing any other business.
The filibuster is part of the great tradition of the Senate and its rules, which allow individual senators and the minority great say in the debate. Unlike the House of Representatives, where the majority strictly rules, the Senate’s majority party can’t easily steamroll the minority.
That’s why there has been such a fight in the Senate over proposals to change rules regarding the filibuster, which has recently been used to hold the chamber in gridlock. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has proposed overhauling the rules to limit the filibuster, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has voiced support for change. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has decried any change.
Historically, the filibuster was seen as a procedure to be used in extraordinary issues. Rarely was it invoked. In recent years, use of the filibuster has gotten out of control, and it has strayed from its original intent. It certainly doesn’t look anything like what Jimmy Stewart went through in “Mr. Smith.”
Senators typically filibuster through procedural maneuvers, so the long floor speech is a rarity. And rules changes over the years now mean that other work on the floor doesn’t stop, so there’s little pressure to deal with — or end — the filibuster. Because of the ease of the filibuster and the need for 60 votes to break one, which is very difficult in today’s political climate, the filibuster is an extreme and powerful weapon that has been used and complained about by both parties.
In 2005, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., complained about Democratic tactics and considered using the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules and curb filibusters, particularly on judicial nominees. During the 110th Congress, which ended in 2006, there were 68 motions to invoke cloture, the procedure to end a filibuster, filed in the Senate.
After Frist retired in 2006, his party went on to use the filibuster in record numbers. The Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007 and were soon overwhelmed as Republican filibusters flooded the chamber. There were 139 cloture motions in 2007 and 2008 — a record high. The following two years, the first of President Barack Obama’s administration, saw 137 cloture motions. The current Congress has seen 111 cloture motions.
No wonder there’s such gridlock in Washington.
As if it couldn’t get any more ridiculous, just last week, McConnell threatened to filibuster his own bill after Reid agreed to vote on it. (Yes, that’s really what happened.)
The Senate’s job is to get things done for the American people, not jam the wheels of government. It’s good that the rules protect the minority party, but we can’t support what we’ve seen in recent years.
There needs to be a change, but whenever there are such plans, the minority party complains about fairness and Senate tradition.
Fine. Let’s go back to the way the filibuster had been carried out traditionally, as in the “Mr. Smith” days. If a senator thinks a bill or a nomination is so offensive that it has to be stopped, let him go to the floor and make his case, and let all other work cease until the filibuster is resolved. Then the senators can decide whether it’s really worth it.
That should curb the frivolous use of the filibuster, reserve it for what it was intended and get the Senate back working.