Mr. Smith Gets Filibusted

By now everyone has gotten an earful about “limited government.” Everyone from constitutional scholars to the crazy tea baggers have made that very clear. The reason we have three branches that check each other is so that they can force important decisions to be deliberate, only enacted after debate and careful thought. Over the years, several legislative tools have been created to make this deliberative process easier, one of the most notable being the filibuster. Believe it or not, there was once a time when the filibuster was an unusual and even extraordinary measure, a last resort tactic used only by the bravest senators that felt so strongly about their beliefs they were willing to talk as long as possible in order to stop a bill’s progress. In 2010, the filibuster is nothing more than a magic word that scares Democrats into hitting the pause button.

Like all things that started out with noble intentions, the filibuster has been corrupted. Sure, there was that one time Strom Thurmond spoke over 24 hours to stop civil rights legislation, but in those days a senator standing up against such legislation opened himself up to public anger or ridicule, so it came with its own costs.

Not anymore. Somehow, the original intent of the filibuster has been twisted into a crass, cheap political trick. A senator need only announce an intention to filibuster and the pending legislation grinds to a halt. Never in my lifetime have I seen or heard of a single senator standing before his fellow legislators and speaking for an extended period of time the same way the filibusters of old were initiated. What was once a rare and very public demonstration of how far a senator was willing to go in his disapproval of a piece of legislation has now become a caricature, yet another partisan weapon to wield against one’s enemies.

Of course, used properly, the filibuster can be a handy last resort tool to defeat bad legislation. However, it is clear that in today’s political environment, the threat of a filibuster is an evil minion of angry, disruptive minority parties. This trend has only gotten worse since the early ’90s. Democrats and Republican alike have been responsible for this partisan trend, but Republicans win the award for being the best at it. In no time at all they have rewritten the definition of majority and made sixty votes the standard for passing anything.

Yes, much has been made of the sixty votes required to block the filibuster. Many forget that one of the reasons we have the current Constitution is because the original Congress was unable to do anything, as all decisions required a two-thirds majority. The Founding Fathers wisely decided to create a legislature that only needed a simple majority to pass legislation.

Imagine trying to get three friends to agree on the same place to eat lunch, and then you will realize why getting sixty senators from different states, regions, backgrounds, and interests to vote together on every single issue is an absurd precedent. Even more absurd is the fact that Democrats have done little in the face of these threats, other than claim that their hands are tied.

We have even seen several instances recently where filibusters were thrown up against pending legislation, only to result in near-universal voting in favor of the bill in question. Why filibuster if you’re just going to vote for the legislation? The answer is obvious: if all you want to do is slow things down, the filibuster is now one of the most powerful tools to do just that. Senators like Richard Shelby also like to take advantage of “holds,” deciding to stop the Senate from voting on confirming someone the president nominated or a bill from even being debated on the floor. Like the filibuster, the hold can come in handy when the executive branch neglects to divulge enough information for a proper vote to take place, but it can also be used to stop political enemies. In Shelby’s case, over 70 of President Obama’s nominees have been put on hold in a “blanket hold” initiated by the GOP. Is he even doing research on all of these appointees? Doubtful. Is he encouraging debate? No, the hold keeps that from taking place.

At least the Republicans are consistent. They like to claim that the government is not the solution to problems and that it must be thwarted at all costs. As key players in the government, Republicans are very consistent, using the filibuster on everything, even bills they will vote for anyway, and placing holds on every nominee they can. However, if the Senate was actually able to enact policies that might actually help the American people get out of this economic mess, perhaps we would discover that the government actually can help citizens.

Of course, legislative success means that Democrats will score political points, and the minority, party can’t have any of that. After all, if they gum up the works often enough, Republican claims that the government is useless become self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s so much easier to blame the majority for why nothing is happening than to allow actual progress to be made, especially when you’re the ones responsible for the delay.

Kerry Wakely is a second-year English major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.