Between the Lines: A call for reform

While flipping through the channels on the TV recently, I stumbled upon "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the film screened decades ago that made Jimmy Stewart a star.

I'm not going to go deep into the plot of this classic movie. Most of you have probably seen it. To sum things up, the character played by a Stewart – he was one of the good guys in a nation's capital filled with corrupt characters – could be deemed a winner in this story.

Thanks to the filibuster.

In the film, Stewart, a member of the Senate, did what many of us expects happens when someone wants to stop something from happening in the upper house of Congress. He takes advantage of the filibuster, which, as grade school kids we all learned is a tactic sometimes used in the U.S. Senate by opponents of a bill to block its passage.

The thought of it brings up images of Jimmy Stewart, or of real-life senators who have, in the past, brought the nation's business to a grinding halt by standing on the floor of the Senate and reading the Bible, or the phone book, or each one of his wife's favorite recipes.

The filibuster, at least the type we all learned about in school, allows a member of the Senate, once granted permission to speak by the presiding officer, to continue to speak indefinitely in an effort to delay or prevent a final vote on a bill. To halt the filibuster, the Senate must pass a "cloture" resolution by a three-fifths majority (60 votes).

The Jimmy Stewart version of the filibuster is one example of how it used to work. The Senate hasn't enacted what we all believe is a traditional filibuster in more than four decades. In fact, the rules were specifically changed to PREVENT Jimmy Stewart-type of stunts from holding up bills.

A filibuster, today, means not getting 60 votes for a procedural motion, usually to invoke cloture and proceed to the vote. If you don't get the 60, the bill is under filibuster. That's it. No one has to hold the floor. The Senate doesn't have to remain in session. No all-nighters are needed.

It was done this way after the civil rights acts of the 1960s, to specifically prevent individual Senators or small groups from being able to derail the business of the entire chamber by requiring a minimum number of votes to filibuster – currently, 41.

Unfortunately, the past couple years have shown that the use, or rather misuse of the filibuster, even after its rules were changed four decades ago, is still rampant.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid calculates that he's faced nearly 400 filibusters in his six years as majority leader. The problem, as critics see it, is that ever more matters are put to filibuster. It's not just bills ¬– it's even the question of whether to open debate on bills. In effect, a supermajority of 60 votes is now required to pass any bill that's at all controversial. Reformers say it's patently absurd; if the Framers had intended for all legislation to require a supermajority, they would have indicated it.

Congress currently has its hands full, trying to steer the nation clear from the impending fiscal cliff before year's end.

We hope they find time to at least resolve, in the coming new year, to tweak the filibuster rules. In their current form, those rules are constantly being abused to the point that hardly any meaningful work gets done in the U.S. Senate.

There are a range of ideas currently being considered, including banning filibusters on motions to proceed, and banning filibusters on House-Senate conferences.

Ironically, one idea being kicked around is bringing back the talking filibuster – the Jimmy Stewart method. Currently, in the Senate the minority can simply announce that it intends to filibuster and that's the end of the matter. In at least one case, a senator allegedly "phoned in" a filibuster while away from Washington. Some reformers want to force anyone who wants to filibuster to actually speak for hours in the grand phonebook-reading tradition of Bob LaFollette, Strom Thurmond, and Robert Byrd.

We realize we're asking for a lot – Republicans, currently the minority in the Senate, have used (and abused) the filibuster over the years as a method of having a grasp of power in the body, even though they aren't the majority party. Democrats have done the same thing in recent years when they've been the Senate minority.

We long for the days when Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, and Trent Lott, the Senate minority leader, actually would communicate and compromise and make an effort to see that the U.S. Senate actually functioned.

Today, all we get from that body is dysfunction. Filibuster reform may not be a total cure, but currently, we can't see how it could make things any worse.

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