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In Defense of the Filibuster

Call me a sap but I am going to get this point out of the way immediately.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of my all time


Mr. Smith, in the middle of a real filibuster.

favorite movies.  I LOVE it.  When I look at the Capitol, I make sure to appreciate it.  Along the same vein is my true appreciation of the US Senate.  Having worked on both sides of the Hill, the Senate seems more like graduate school while the House has a certain kindergarten feel to it (for the record, I LOVED working for the House).

One thing that seems to be almost universally unpopular with the majority in the Senate is the filibuster.  As the Democrats currently control the Senate, they hate this rule.  When the Republicans controlled it, the feeling was quite different.  My first job out of college was working for Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).  The Democrats were in the minority back then and Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) was my hero.  He used the filibuster the way Mr. Smith did.  He could talk for hours.  He could talk for years.  The irony, of course, is that early in the Bill Clinton administration (I have to qualify that because I predict we will have another Clinton administration -- when Hillary says we’ll get “two for one” as they did in 1992, will people be as outraged?), the Democrats had the majority and Senator Byrd’s tirades about whatever probably would have annoyed me.

There is something we tend to forget about our system of government.  We do not have a true democracy.  We have a republic.  What’s the difference?  A democracy is government ruled by the people.  A republic is one ruled by elected officials.  Personally, I think it is possible to have too much democracy.  I cite California as the premier example.  You see, we all want a strong military, a great education system, protection from criminals and terrorists.  We want help when natural disasters hit.  We want a lot (and deserve a lot).  What we don’t want is to pay for any of it.  That’s where direct democracy fails us.  When Proposition 13 was passed, the real estate taxes in California were insane so the populace fought back and limited them.  What they didn’t do was limit spending. Think Washington is the only place where excessive spending is popular?  Go anywhere in America and talk to people and they will tell you their issue, their project -- be it a pot hole or a bomb threat, needs funding.  We want our cake and eat it, too.

That’s just a footnote to my real point, our governmental system exists to protect the individual or minority from the majority.  It is a little more than ironic that Thomas Jefferson said this in his first inaugural address, given his slave owning and all, but he did.  He said, “"All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression."  To me, that is the point of the filibuster.

Let’s look, shall we?, at the history and point of the Senate.  This is supposed to be the “world’s most deliberate body.”  Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) was lampooned when he said, “The Senate is not meant to be efficient.”  He was right, the point of the Senate is to put the breaks on legislation that might otherwise be oppressive as the House of Representatives is much more influenced by current public opinion, which we change all the time (see: California’s prop 13 as I mentioned before).  Early on, the idea was that they would not introduce their own legislation, just debate what the House passed.  It could be the reason spending bills originate in the House (look it up if you don’t believe me).  The word deliberative does not mean efficient.  I agree with General Patton when he said, “A good plan executed today is better than a perfect one executed tomorrow.” but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Now, there has been a lot of filibuster abuse.  I read on one site that a filibuster is when one senator talks for days on end and the only way to stop them is to vote -- with 60 votes being needed to stop it.  Nowadays, anytime cloture needs to be invoked, a filibuster can happen.  That’s the problem.  We need to get back to Mr. Smith’s filibuster.

So ending the filibuster isn’t the answer.  Reverting it to what it used to be is.