“The least man in the chamber, once he gets and holds that floor, by the rules can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet providing always, first, that he does not sit down, and second that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking.”
That’s straight out of the script of the 1939 Academy Award-winning movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Though fiction, it describes how filibusters used to work in the U.S. Senate.
Thought to be based on Anaconda Company-era Montana, the movie is about an idealistic young ranger who is unexpectedly appointed to the Senate and discovers he is expected to follow the dictates of the corrupt political machine in his state, which controls its industry, newspapers and politicians. Sen. Smith (played by actor Jimmy Stewart) refuses to knuckle under and is blackmailed by the corrupt machine. Faced with expulsion from the Senate, he defiantly exposes the corruption in his state in a one-man filibuster that after many hours ends in his dramatic collapse on the Senate floor—but also in his vindication.
Filibusters now work the opposite of the way they did in 1939. No longer do they require debate or rhetoric. In fact, they prevent it. By modern Senate rules, no senator can debate anything in the 100-member body unless allowed to by a prearranged 60-vote “super-majority.” Mr. Smith couldn’t even get recognized in the Senate today.
Once regarded as the world’s greatest deliberative body, today’s U.S. Senate flounders in the absurd abuse of its own rules. Now, consent of 60 percent of the senators is required before it can do virtually anything. In this era of fanatical party loyalty, the majority party can’t advance anything because, lacking 60 votes, it is routinely obstructed from doing so by the minority. The minority can’t pass anything because it’s in the minority. Ridiculous, but true.
Except for passage of pork-barrel spending measures that help to reelect all senators, the partisan impasse will continue. It doesn’t have to. The House of Representatives, requiring only a simple majority, has passed major legislation to reduce the national debt. The Senate hasn’t debated the House debt-reduction plan or come up with a counter plan of its own because it lacks 60 Democrats or Republicans to start the discussion.
The next time you are at a public meeting attended by Rep. Denny Rehberg or Sen. Jon Tester, ask them if they want to be part of a legislative body that passes a serious debt-reduction plan. Predictably, they’ll say, “Yes.”
Then pin them down on whether they’re also willing to join an increasing number of concerned senators ready to revise the filibuster rule to actually make that possible.
Former Montana Secretary of State