If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ you probably have a special place in your heart for filibusters. The way the naive Sen. Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) passionately and elegantly delivered his filibuster speech to do away with political corruption and uphold democracy for the American people inspires all of us to stand up and speak for our moral beliefs.
While this film certainly has its unrealistic aspects, namely the obvious, overly-idealized attempt to boost patriotism, it makes famous one of the key tools enjoyed by senators for centuries.
Protections, including the filibuster, against blind majority rule in this country were put in place to ensure that the party in power could not exercise complete control over proceedings. This is especially important in a two-party system such as ours since, in this case, the minority still makes up a large portion of the U.S. population.
Filibusters essentially allow senators to debate for an unlimited amount of time and are often used to stop a bill or nomination from passing. Now it may sound impossible to get anything to pass if senators are allowed to debate indefinitely, but filibusters are usually used only under extreme circumstances or as a last resort.
In addition, a filibuster can be stopped if a three-fifths majority vote takes place in favor of doing so. Therefore the ‘indefinite’ debate is actually subject to limitations if it becomes too unpopular, as seen in the 1919 ratification of the Treaty of Versailles (which, at that time, required a two-thirds majority).
The majority enjoyed by the Republican Party these days seems to be altering not only current domestic and foreign policy, but also threatening the continued use of the filibuster to protect for the minority voice in Congress. Threats by the GOP to severely limit the filibuster were constantly made, fueled by the Democrats’ use of the filibuster to stop Bush’s judicial nominations from passing through the Senate.
The Republicans have threatened to essentially eliminate the filibuster for all nominations, requiring only a simple majority to end the debate, while Democrats have threatened to slow the passage of other bills in return.
However, votes to limit or even eliminate the filibuster have taken place many times throughout U.S. history, brought to the table by the majority party.
The most recent debates over the filibuster have been resolved for now. Both Democrats and Republicans have decided to maintain the existing rules guarding the filibuster as long as the Democrats allow some of the nominations to pass, as seen with the approval of Priscilla Owen, who won the nomination as a justice for United States Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit after four years of having her nomination debated in the Senate.
The filibuster was not meant to be used as a scare tactic to gain small political triumphs.
The filibuster should not be used as an ideological tool confined to the current issue at hand when its purpose is to allow any senator the opportunity to use it, no matter which party is in power. Both parties have focused too narrowly on this issue and have seemingly ignored the possibility that they themselves may one day desperately need the filibuster.
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