“The least man in the chamber, once he gets and holds that floor, by the rules can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet providing always, first, that he does not sit down, and second that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking.”
That’s straight out of the script of the 1939 Academy Award-winning movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Though fiction, it describes how filibusters used to work in the U.S. Senate.
Thought to be based on Anaconda Company-era Montana, the movie is about an idealistic young ranger who is unexpectedly appointed to the Senate and discovers he is expected to follow the dictates of the corrupt political machine in his state, which controls its industry, newspapers and politicians.
Sen. Smith (actor Jimmy Stewart) refuses to knuckle under, and is blackmailed by the corrupt machine. Faced with expulsion from the Senate, he defiantly exposes the corruption in his state in a one-man filibuster that after many hours ends in his dramatic collapse on the Senate floor – but also in his vindication.
Filibusters now work the opposite of the way they did in 1939. No longer do they require debate or rhetoric. In fact, they prevent it.
By modern Senate rules no senator can debate anything in the 100-member body unless allowed to by a prearranged 60-vote “super-majority.”
Once regarded as the world’s greatest deliberative body, today’s United States Senate flounders in the absurd abuse of its own rules.
In this era of fanatical party loyalty, the majority party can’t advance anything because, lacking 60 votes, it is routinely obstructed from doing so by the minority. The minority can’t pass anything because it’s in the minority. Ridiculous, but true.
The House of Representatives, requiring only a simple majority, has passed major legislation to reduce the national debt. The Senate hasn’t debated the House debt reduction plan, or come up with a counter plan of its own, because it lacks 60 Democrats or Republicans to start the discussion.
The debt, now beyond comprehension, ominously continues to climb. One wonders if senators of both parties are so afraid of the hostile public reaction that might result from necessary cuts in popular programs and tax increases that they’re using the 60-vote rule as an excuse to not act.
Our Constitution enumerates the matters which require a greater than majority vote, and the filibuster is not one of them. It is simply a rule of the Senate. The Senate makes its own rules, and it can change them.
The next time you are at a public meeting attended by Senate candidates Denny Rehberg or Jon Tester, ask them if they want to be part of a legislative body that passes a serious debt reduction plan. Predictably, they’ll say, “Yes.”
Then pin them down on whether they’re also willing to join an increasing number of concerned senators ready to revise the filibuster rule to actually make that possible. The country might still be rescued by any number of debt compromises if passed by the Senate as well as the House. It might not survive two more years of debt deadlock.
Bob Brown is a former Republican Montana secretary of state. He lives in Whitefish.
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