…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
To Answer Filibuster Question, Ask Mr. Smith
Categories: Commentary, Politics

by Meg White

Yesterday, BuzzFlash opened a discussion about whether or not to end the Senate filibuster. Some agreed that the filibuster should be eliminated. Others said the fault lies with a wishy-washy Democratic leadership in Congress, not the filibuster. Still others saw it as a temporary solution, one that will come back to bite the Democrats when they fall out of electoral favor. Others spoke in defense of tradition.

Republicans are good at using this obstructionist tool and Democrats are not. It’s clear that swift action and bold legislation are desperately needed to get our country back on track. But if threats of filibusters keep leading to a watering down of important legislation and to harmful concessions, maybe the practice should be re-examined.

As George Lakoff so deftly points out, there is a fundamental cultural difference between how Republicans and Democrats do business. The authoritarian nature of the GOP allows Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to bust knees to get conservative legislation through. For them, the filibuster-proof majority is attainable. For Democrats, it is not.

It’s worth mentioning that there are always ways to get around a filibuster no matter who you are. For example, if lawmakers can squeeze their legislation into the annual reconciliation bill, it is immune to filibuster and can be passed with a 51-vote majority. That’s how the Bush tax cuts made it through in the first place.

One of the reasons I tend to vote Democratic is the fact that the tent is bigger. I appreciate that the idea of post-partisanship is a possibility for Democrats. But Republicans just don’t work that way, and that’s why they’ve been so successful in the past few years.

Democrats aren’t as big of fans of goose-stepping, however. The reason Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi are in the Congressional leadership roles that they are is because they don’t enforce party discipline. And wishy-washy leadership means more room for diverse opinions. It also leave more room for being steamrolled by an angry minority of Republicans operating in lockstep.

There exists a certain amount of nostalgia that helps keep the idea of a filibuster in place. Democracy is indeed a messy thing, and most of us like it that way.

I, for one, am a fan of Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s 1938 masterpiece Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. His impassioned speech was a longwinded but powerful statement of his personal values and the ideals of his country. However, that is not what a modern filibuster sounds like, more like one hand clapping.

Today’s filibusters are more about not taking a stand. Politicians filibuster to avoid voting on controversial subjects. No one wants to be the face of the movement that blocks an economic plan that could help save our country. Nowadays, politicians don’t even need to be present to filibuster, and the possibility of an anonymous hold makes accountability for obstructionism even more difficult.

Not so back in 1957, when Strom Thurmond stood before his colleagues for more than 24 hours speechifying against the rights of African Americans. That’s on record now, making it impossible to deny the late senator’s distaste for equal rights.

Eliminating the filibuster may remove an important tool for the minority. Instead, let’s truly respect tradition by going back to Mr. Smith’s Washington, where dissenters have to defend their actions and give a reason for their opposition.

I would like to see Sen. Lindsey Graham or Sen. Jim DeMint get up on the Senate floor and explain to their constituents, who are suffering though one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, why the Employee Free Choice Act is such a terrible idea. I think if Republican lawmakers had to spend any more than 30 seconds talking about that piece of imperiled legislation, their ties to Wal-Mart and their disgust for unions might be exposed.

Or maybe Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison could spend 24 hours talking about exactly why the stimulus package has her so “worried.” My guess is that she’d run out of talking points before long.

If the filibuster rules were changed to force politicians to stand up for what they believed in, the nature of this parliamentary nonsense might change from pure obstructionism to a public statement of values. Another plus: C-SPAN would become a whole lot more entertaining.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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