Strom Thurmond

The Filibuster: a Debacle and a Half

[Requiring a supermajority] would mean the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority.
— James Madison, Federalist Papers No. 58

Anybody who listens to our podcast knows that nothing gets our goat quite like the silent filibuster.  This is one of the most infuriating, manipulative, and cynical practices of our modern Senate, and when we say “modern,” we mean “conveniently since the very time the nation elected one President Obama and the GOP settled on a strategy of obstruction.”  A period of American history that we will call “The Stupid Ages.”  



You may be asking how this age of the Senate become so “”stupid” to begin with.  It’s a fair question.  

It began with a dream, a dream laid out by a bitter GOP that dug it’s own grave by electing an unpopular, incompetent, vacation-factory to be President for eight years.  A dream that each and every GOP Senator would share a simple, unifying agenda - one that would focus on preventing Senate votes from taking place instead of advancing legislation to benefit their constituents.

Well, kudos to you, GOP.  The Senate had a rule build right in that you could harness to this effect and you did not hesitate!  You always were good with blackmail.

Once considered a desperate option used primarily by fringe Senators to delay votes, the operating assumption of the Senate is now that a filibuster will occur for every vote, and Reid’s task has become scrounging up 60 votes to override these potential filibusters before they happen.  Ironically, zero of these filibusters (all of the “silent” variety) have actually been carried out because none of them are being threatened by flesh-and-blood people, they all being threatened by implication.  Reid has never called the GOP’s bluff and no GOP Senator has ever had to take to the Senate floor for 18 hours to express their disapproval of something patently good.  It’s simple: because there is no accountability, there is no way to stop this scourge.  The only semi-filibuster we’ve seen was carried out by Socialist Vermont Senator/American Hero Bernie Sanders, and while it was glorious, it wasn’t officially a filibuster because he wasn’t holding up legislation.

Lets look at some depressing facts.  In the 1960s, no single Senate term had more than seven votes on cloture (motions to end a filibuster).  Today, in the “Stupid Ages,”, we regularly go over 100 per term.  Republicans have used the silent filibuster over 370 times during Harry Reid’s tenure.  By comparison, Lyndon Johnson was Senate Majority Leader for the same length of time during the Cold War and only had to deal with one single Republican filibuster.  During the Cold War, guys!

What’s especially interesting about all the controversy over the filibuster is that the rules surrounding the practice haven’t changed significantly since the 1800s - the silent filibuster went uninvented for hundreds of years because…people used to be nicer?  After all, this is all happening in the Senate, i.e. the American equivalent of the House of Lords.  It’s a body designed to give rich landowners an extra special say in how we govern and, as a result, has always been very big on respect and formality.  The major responsibility of any Senator is to look like a picture of civility in an effort to show how superior white men are.  (And to complement each other at every turn.  Seriously, if they would all stop complimenting each other at hearings they would be able to get so much more done.  Or at least be able to silently filibuster way more bills than normal.)

Anyway, somehow, the idea that anybody could theoretically carry out a filibuster at any time, which has ALWAYS BEEN THE RULE OF THE SENATE, became much scarier when 44% of the Senate decided that they had no agenda other than to make threats.  And that, friends, is where we find ourselves now.



So we know things are a mess, but things have now gotten straight up silly since Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell decided to actively non-address the excess filibuster problem. Flagrantly ignoring a bill being proposed by Senators Merkley, Udall and Harkin that would end the silent filibuster, Reid and McConnell decided to make a deal that does the least it can possibly do to seem like new legislation.  It will:

- Shorten the debate following a cloture vote but leave the ability to filibuster that cloture vote essentially intact.

- Require Senators to actually be on the floor in order to threaten a filibuster.  (Baby steps?)

- Allow the minority (Read: Republicans) to offer two amendments on every bill. (!!!)

- Shorten the confirmation time for judicial nominees.

- Require that the time allocated for debate actually be spent on debate and not general waiting around.

If reading of the above list leaves you thinking, ‘So wait, they can still just threaten to filibuster anything at any time without having to do it?  How will that possibly change anything?’ Well, we direct you to the wise words of Senator Tom Harkin, who said to President Obama:

‘Look, if you get reelected, if we don’t do something significant about filibuster reform, you might as well take a four-year vacation.”  

His take on the new bill? “This (deal) is not significant.“  Of course the day after Reid and McConnell announced this terrible deal, Tom Harkin announced his retirement.  Coincidence?  Doubtful.



None of this is to say that we at Brain Trust Live are anti-filibuster in the broad sense.  As activists and general troublemakers, we’re actually quite pro-filibuster in a rabid sports-fan-style way.  Still, before Mr. Obama became president, the polite thing to do when you wanted to filibuster was to actually show up to the Senate Floor in a “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” style blaze of glory.  

See, Senators are entitled to speak for as long as they like once they have the mic, and those with bladders of steel (who aren’t concerned with potential kidney failure) have done some impressive time on the stand.  

Strom Thurmond still holds the record for the longest individual filibuster, going on for over 24 hours in his opposition to the Civil Rights Bill of 1957.  He’s a man who governed from a wheelchair into his 90s and is mostly remembered for hating Civil Rights THAT MUCH.  Jesse Helms also cast a shadow over the rest of his political career over a short lived filibuster of A NATIONAL HOLIDAY COMMEMORATING MLK.  Yeah, that happened.  

But the joy of the filibuster is in what actually gets said for hours and hours on the floor.  In 1935, Senator Huey Long recited various recipes for fried oysters and Roquefort salad dressing for hours.  Senator Alfonse D’Amato even shared his vocal stylings by singing “South of the Border” to filibuster a bill that would move a typewriter plant from his home state to Mexico.  Hopefully (for the sake of everybody in attendance) his singing was better than fellow Republican Mitt Romney’s.  

Recipes for Roquefort salad dressing and presumably terrible Republican singing?  These are just a few of the things that make America great.  Why are we robbing ourselves of all of this glory?

American people: your ball.