Saturday, November 21, 2009


Well-known to all septua and octogenerarians and TCM watchers, Frank Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington featured Jimmy Stewart as everyman saving the day with his Senate filibuster. Along with Gary Cooper he was one of those aw shucks actors who charmed us with his Adam’s apple and absence of guile.

In the real world the filibuster has been used since 1841 most often to block progressive legislation. It is a Senate rule and nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. The House of Representative dropped it well over a century ago. In fact it is antithetical to the democratic process.

The so-called nuclear option would be the suspension of the filibuster by the majority party. Another alternative would be the to pass the current legislation by budget reconciliation which requires the simple 51% vote.

The word comes from the Spanish filibustero, to pirate. Indeed, it has been employed most often by Southern senators to high-jack anti-lynching laws and abolition of the poll tax. Why should a three-fifths vote be necessary when we are told that majority rules?

The very make-up of the Senate, itself, subverts the notion of one-man, one-vote. Wyoming with half a million has the same two votes as California with 34 million. Of the top ten states in population which represent 55% of the country, only five of the twenty senators are Republican. Conservatives are disproportionately assigned power in our bicameral legislature. The filibuster makes it worse.

It is one thing to protect the rights of minorities but grid lock in Congress is nothing more than obstruction. This goes beyond our forefather’s concept of checks and balances.

There was a time when a filibuster actually required the minority party to hold the floor with oration. Now it is the mere threat of endless rhetoric which requires a cloture vote to stymie. It is my wish that Harry Reid demands the Conservatives bring in their cots if they wish to muscle their way to ignominy.

I am aware that it can work both ways. With all the Republican bluster only five percent of G.W. Bush’s appointees to the bench were held up by the Democrats during his tenure. In the long haul democracy is best served by the will of the majority along with the powers assigned to each branch in the constitution.

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