Abusing the filibuster

By Eric Naing

In the classic 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart plays a na’ve senator who nobly turns to the filibuster as his last resort against the forces of corruption in congressional politics. But in the nearly seven decades since the film’s release, the filibuster has become anything but noble. Used in the 1950s and ’60s as way to block civil rights legislation, the filibuster today has become a way for Senate Republicans to block any and all meaningful legislation from being voted on.

The filibuster is essentially a way to extend debate on legislation on the Senate Floor in order to prevent it from being voted on. This traditionally involves senators giving marathon speeches which grind the Senate to a halt. To end a filibuster, a 60 vote supermajority of senators is needed. But thanks to Senate Rule XXII, Jimmy Stewart-esque speeches are not needed, making the threat of a filibuster just as dangerous as an actual one.

Last week, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called for an all-night debate on an amendment proposed by fellow Senate Democrats which would have called for a troop redeployment from Iraq. What Reid did not do was filibuster. It was actually Senate Republicans who threatened to filibuster the amendment and Reid’s theatrics were meant to highlight their obstructionism.

According to McClatchy News Service, Senate Republicans are using the threat of a filibuster to not just derail legislation intended to end the war in Iraq, but also to put a stop to practically everything else that Senate Democrats want to accomplish. Since the mid-1980s, the number of filibusters in the Senate per Congressional term has ranged from 24 to 58. So far in the current Congressional term, which finds the Republicans in the minority for the first time in more than a decade, Senate Republicans have filibustered 42 times. If this pace holds for the rest of this Congressional term, Senate Republicans will have filibustered a whopping 153 times.

Thanks in part to a press that paints this unprecedented Republican obstructionism as general Congressional incompetence and to a Democratic leadership that has, until recently, let them get away with it, Senate Republicans have succeeded in routinely blocking popular legislation without getting blamed for it.

Ironically, these same Senate Republicans who are now filibustering to prevent legislation from being voted on were only a few years ago crying out for an “up or down vote” in the face of a Democratic filibuster when they were in the majority.

On basically every major issue of the day, the public is with the Democrats. Realizing this, Senate Republicans are abusing the filibuster to an unprecedented degree to stall legislation. They are the true reason that the Senate seems to accomplish so little today.

Hopefully Harry Reid has learned his lesson and will now force the Republicans to follow words with action. The public is with the Democrats now and if it pressures the Republicans to own up to their obstructionism, not even the reanimated corpse of Jimmy Stewart could save them.