Saturday, January 30, 2010

Senate Filibusters

It's an important political issue, but I suspect most Americans don't really know or care what a filibuster is, though the subject has been in the news quite a bit again lately. For those not familiar with the word, it's basically the political label used for an extended speech or debate in the U. S. Senate which main purpose is to delay or prevent a vote. The term actually derives from the 18th and early 19th century Spanish and Portuguese pirates referred to as "filibusteros," who held ships hostage for ransom, much as the Somali pirates have been doing in recent years.

Another way to describe it is that a filibuster nowadays is a parliamentary tactic used to stall legislative proceedings or to thwart an opposing bill that would otherwise most probably pass. It is rooted in the Senate's tradition of allowing unlimited debate and was originally intended to produce a more balanced and considered judgment. To initiate a filibuster a senator must have the floor. If the filibusterer doesn't stop talking of his or her own accord, the only way to stop that senator is by a parliamentary procedure called cloture, requiring a minimum three-fifths vote by sixty or more senators.

Both Republicans and Democrats use filibustering when they are in the minority and wish to be a pain in the neck to the majority party on a particular issue or bill they greatly oppose. Perhaps the most infamous use of the filibuster was by now deceased Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina who, in an attempt to block progress in civil rights legislation, talked for more than 24 hours straight without a break (with assistance from a urine bag) in 1957. In 2003 when Democrats were in the minority Senator Harry Reid from Nevada, now Majority Leader, spent over eight hours on the Senate floor protesting how much time Republicans were taking in support of President Bush's controversial judicial nominations instead of focusing on the country's high unemployment rate. Much of this time Senator Reid just stood there reading several chapters from an uninteresting book he had written on his home town. As most people know, Republican leaders filibustered quite a bit most of last year to stop meaningful progress on the health care reform bill they strongly opposed.

This is crazy! It's wasteful! It's usually reflective of blatant, unprofessional partisanship, often mixed in with misleading and inaccurate advertising and special interest lobbying! The voters and taxpayers deserve much better of their well compensated public servants. What can and should be done? Voters can make it clear to their senators how they feel about this situation, encourage reform and more mature bipartisanship to get the public's important business done in a proper and efficient way. The media can write and publish blunt editorials recommending the same.

Public and media pressure can help, as can a compelling call to action on this score by the President. However, the Senate leaders of both parties are best positioned to get appropriate, balanced rule changes approved quickly. One option is to get agreement that the Senate approves a reduction in the number of senators needed to cut off debate on an issue or bill to somewhere between 51 and 55, instead of the current 60 votes. Another option to make it easier to stop a filibuster, proposed recently by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, is that the number of votes needed to stop a filibuster is gradually reduced in stages, from 60 votes on the first attempt, to 57 votes on the second attempt if a vote is is held two days later, and eventually to 51votes if the debate drags on long enough.

Another idea is to have the Senate leaders agree on a concise, clear and specific declaration to be incorporated into the procedural rules that would prohibit all blatant filibustering that is obviously not germane to what is the subject at hand. Furthermore, the declaration could incorporate language that provides a fair, reasonable and balanced opportunity for a limited number of senators from each major party to speak for an agreed maximum period on each issue or bill, whether that be 30minutes, an hour or two hours, for example. It shouldn't really be that difficult and complicated. If it's too controversial for such a declaration to be effective immediately, then it can be agreed to be effective at the beginning of the next term when winners of the next mid-term congressional elections get seated in 2011.

Come on, senators! Be accountable! Get this done! It's about time. No more excuses!

1 comment:

Thomas Dale said...

Filibustering seems so antiquated. Reading chapters from a book completely unrelated to the topic at hand? What a complete waste of time and so disrespectful to the political process at large. Seems so juvenile. Another loop in the legal system for politicians to exploit.