Filibusters Could Be Fun

Although the Senate is much given to admiring in its
members a superiority less obvious or quite invisible to outsiders, one
senator seldom proclaims his own inferiority to another, and still more
seldom likes to be told of it.
- Henry Brooks Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

You can't really blame the senators. It's much easier for them this
way. On the other hand, it was more amusing for the citizens the old
way. The senators should go back to the old way. I refer to the
filibuster. They took the fun out of it several decades ago and it's
high time they put it back. The senators would have more time in the
public eye and the public eye would have something at which to gaze.

According to the Congressional Quarterly
(CQ), the filibuster's first use by the U.S. Senate took place in 1841
when Democrats and Whigs were fighting over the appointment of official
Senate printers and the establishment of a national bank. Later in the
19th Century the filibuster was involved in issues pertaining to
slavery, the civil war and reconstruction. In 1917 it was used to block
a bill authorizing the purchase of ships and another authorizing the
arming of merchant ships, both sought by President Woodrow Wilson to
prepare the nation for war. Following the 1917 filibuster, the Senate
adopted a cloture rule to cut off endless filibustering that was
invoked 25 times through 1962, but successfully ended a filibuster only
four times.

In days gone by filibusters required talking.
And more talking. So long as the filibusterers had the floor, the
Senate could not engage in other business and the filibusterers were
free to talk as long as they had the strength and observed the rules
that permitted them to hold the floor. In the 1950s and '60s the threat
of civil rights legislation being passed was sufficient to guarantee
filibusters. Strom Thurmond filibustered a civil rights bill in 1957
speaking continuously for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes. Three
years later eighteen southern senators formed groups of two and kept
the senate in session for 9 days until majority leader Lyndon Johnson
abandoned the legislation in favor of a weaker version later passed.
June 10, 1964, Senator Robert Byrd came to the end of a speech he had
given that lasted 14 hours and 13 minutes opposing the 1964 Civil
Rights Act. Shortly after he concluded, cloture was approved bringing
to an end a debate that had taken 57 working days including six
Saturdays. Then a sad thing happened. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield
imposed a rule that might be called the Virtual Filibuster. Senators
call it two tracking.

Under the two track rule more than
one bill can be pending on the floor of the Senate as unfinished
business. Thus, if a filibuster of a given bill is threatened, the
senate pretends that the filibuster is taking place but continues
working on other legislation. In effect (and it may be hard to believe
that senators are capable of this) the senators are multi-tasking.

In 2004, former Congressman Jack Kemp wrote
that in the 19th century there were only 23 filibusters whereas between
1970 and 2004 there were 191. The increase in number was attributable
to the Virtual Filibuster whose abolition Mr. Kemp favored. Today every
piece of legislation and many nominations are threatened by filibuster.
It seems unfair to the minority that they are not given the opportunity
to put their mouths where their hearts are.

The Senate
should get rid of the Virtual Filibuster. It should insist that
everything come to a grinding halt while those opposing legislation are
permitted to demonstrate their oratorical skills. Some senators may
oppose this new-old idea on the completely believable ground that they
lack enough information about the legislation they oppose to discuss it
intelligently for 10 minutes, much less several hours. Those fearing
that should be comforted by the knowledge that under the rules of the
Senate, their orations need not be germane to the legislation being
opposed. They can, as Senator Huey Long once did while filibustering,
discuss recipes for a variety of Southern foods. Requiring those
filibustering to stand before cameras and orate gives them the
opportunity for viewers of C-Span, Twitter and the like to let the
whole world see how brilliant they are. And if, as would often be the
case, the orator or the cause is not brilliant, the orator and his
colleagues may, after sufficient public exposure, recognize that they
are an embarrassment to the country and abandon the filibuster.

President Wilson commented on the use of the filibuster to block the
arming of the merchant ships in 1917 he said: "The Senate of the United
States is the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when
the majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men . . .
have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and
contemptible." Mitch McConnell, minority leader of the senate, might
want to contemplate those words. Some would say they describe him and
his Republican cohorts.

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