Column - Should filibuster be limited or abolished?The other day a neighbor asked me, “What’s a filibuster?” “It’s a legislative procedure to block a proposed bill from coming up for a vote,” I said. “It’s in the news a lot lately because Republicans use it constantly.”
By: Dennis Dalman, Alexandria Echo Press
The other day a neighbor asked me, “What’s a filibuster?”
“It’s a legislative procedure to block a proposed bill from coming up for a vote,” I said. “It’s in the news a lot lately because Republicans use it constantly.”
As the neighbor asked more questions (when? how? why?), I quickly realized, stuttering, that I didn’t know much about the filibuster’s background. That excellent “American Government” class, in which I first learned about the filibuster, was a long time ago; lost in the dim mists of memory.
Thanks to the convenience of Google, I did some research and learned interesting filibuster facts I’d like to share with readers.
The filibuster, or its equivalent, is as old as the hills. Cato the Younger, an ancient Roman politician, used that tactic in 60 B.C. in a matter concerning Julius Caesar.
The word originated from the Dutch and Spanish words for “pirate” (Dutch “vrijbuiter,” Spanish “filibustero”). Later, those words morphed into “freebooter” and “filibuster” to describe military meddlers who create havoc in Central America.
There is no mention of “filibuster” in the U.S. Constitution. It evolved, at first, as a kind of legislative courtesy so that a minority could have its fair say in debate without being steamrolled by the majority. It’s not surprising that politicians, most of whom seem to love to hear themselves talk, would have invented the filibuster. After all, it involves (or used to) talk, talk and more talk.
During debate on a legislative bill, one or more senators could “filibuster,” which means they would stand in the Senate chamber and try to talk a bill to death, or at least delay its passage. A vote on the bill could not be called as long as the “debate” was still in process. A filibuster “debate,” by the way, simply meant the filibusterers had to drone on (by telling stories, reading from documents or even reading the telephone book). The only way to end a filibuster is if the talkers talked themselves to death (highly unlikely) or a three-fourths majority of the Senate voted to “invoke cloture” (meaning end the debate). That “supermajority” was changed in 1975 to its current three-fifths requirement (60 of 100 senators).
Until recent years, the filibuster was rarely used; just a few times in most two-year legislative periods. Its use increased temporarily in the Civil Rights Era, when Southern senators used it often to try to block civil-rights laws for Afro-Americans. The longest filibuster in history was in 1957 when the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) talked for 24 hours and 12 minutes non-stop in an effort to block a black voting-rights act.
The filibuster was made mythical in the 1939 movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which the great Jimmy Stewart talks for 24 hours in defense of freedom, justice and the American Way before fainting. He saves the day for a happy ending.
In the 1970s, the need to talk non-stop was changed to the “silent filibuster.” Since then, senators have merely had to announce a filibuster, and until the Senate voted 60-40 to end the filibuster, action on a legislative matter could not proceed. That’s still the way it is. There had been some filibusters in the U.S. House, by the way, but in 1842 the House voted to limit the duration of debates.
Nowadays, at least the way it’s been used, the filibuster virtually guarantees that almost nothing can be passed on a simple majority (51-49). Many believe the procedure has been blatantly abused by the Republican minority, which has for nearly four years filibustered virtually every proposal offered by Democrats – hundreds of times.
There is a bill proposed for action this month, January, that would limit the filibuster. I hope it passes because the filibuster, which was once a courtesy to the legislative minority, has become, in my opinion, a cynical tactic used by legislative radicals to undermine the will of the people – that is, representative democracy.
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Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.