George Graham

Finish the Job – End Filibuster Abuse in the US Senate

When state senator Wendy Davis wanted to block passage of an outlandish anti-abortion bill in Texas, she stood on her feet for 11 hours and kept talking until her colleagues gave up. It was a classic filibuster like the legendary scene in the movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (above).

The Texas law was reintroduced and passed eventually anyway, but Senator Davis at least managed to draw national attention to its oppressive provisions.

When federal senators want to block a bill, there is no need to wear out their shoes – or their colleagues’ patience. All they have to do is declare their intent to filibuster the bill and it’s dead – unless it can get a two-thirds majority vote.

It’s no wonder the Republicans have “filibustered” so many of President Obama’s legislative initiatives. This obstructionist tactic, combined with Republican control of the House, has created political gridlock and led to economic stagnation.

The “Party of No” has also been using the filibuster rule to block the president’s appointments, leaving key administrative and judicial posts unmanned.

It’s part of the Republican strategy to bring down the president by sabotaging the country.

You would think that the Democrats, who have a majority in the Senate, would have changed the rule long ago, at least requiring senators to stand up and talk a bill to death the way Wendy Davis and James Stewart did.

Some Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, Tom Harkin and Tom Udall, have been trying to get the rule changed, but Majority Leader Harry Reid demurred, opting instead for a “gentleman’s agreement” with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. I’m sure you know how well that worked out.

So well that even Harry Reid has had enough – at least enough as far as presidential appointments are concerned.

Reid figured the Republicans would stop using the filibuster to keep the president from filling key positions – including judicial openings. And when they kept on doing what they’d been doing, Reid decided to “invoke the nuclear option,” as changing the filibuster rule is quaintly called.

(I suppose the Senate is normally so tranquil that making a procedural adjustment is like deploying The Bomb to these folks.)

Anyway, apart from allowing the President to fill vacant judicial posts with Democrats, the “nuclear option” doesn’t get the job done as far as I can see.

If the Democrats had any courage, they would long ago have ended the nonsense that allows senators to lazily use make-believe filibusters instead of actually getting up on their hind legs and holding forth in the time-honored tradition.

The argument against it is that the Democrats hope to make use of the rule themselves when they’re in the minority, as they expect to be.

I call that extremely pessimistic. I would think they’re planning to keep – and increase –  their Senate majority and win back the House. Wouldn’t you?

Anyway, even if they end up as the minority in the future, what’s to stop the Republicans from changing the rule themselves? McConnell has said he’ll repeal the filibuster entirely (not just for appointments)  when Republicans are in charge.

And if you really believe a bill is bad, shouldn’t you be prepared to do whatever you need to do to block it?

Mr. Smith did. Wendy Davis did.

Click for more on the rule change.

Click for background.

The Davis filibuster.

How the filibuster works in Washington.

About the author

gwgraeme

I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for Jamaicans.com