A reported Senate deal has placed the old-fashioned Jimmy Stewart filibuster back on a dusty shelf and left the much-criticized “silent filibuster” fairly intact.
The deal is expected to be closed on Thursday afternoon and represents a compromise between Democrats and Republicans to speed up some Senate procedures.
But it falls far short of reforms asked for by progressives, who wanted to see filibustering as portrayed by Stewart in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington return to the Senate, on the theory that the filibuster process, which can hold up even bills that otherwise have wide support, should be as painful and onerous as possible.
In the movie, Stewart’s character talks for 24 hours to stop a bill, in the Senate filibustering tradition that started in 1837.
The old-school filibuster is known as a “talking filibuster,” while the current process is called the “silent filibuster,” since a senator indicates behind closed doors to his or her leader their intent to block a bill.
The last old-school talking filibuster on the Senate floor was in October 1992, when Senator Al D’Mato sang “Down Mexico Way” as he protested for 15 hours against the removal of a tax provision that would have benefited a central New York typewriter maker.
Since then, the talking filibuster has lost its appeal to senators who often stay in Washington for a few days each week, and have other ways to work on legislation while a filibuster is carried out.
The latest deal does require a senator who files a filibuster with her or his party leader to appear on the Senate floor, and if asked, explain why they want the procedure to block a bill from a vote. This is arguably an improvement, since previously senators could opt to filibuster more or less anonymously. But there is no singing or reading of the phone book involved.
The new agreement also requires that the majority party hold a cloture vote, where at least 60 senators vote to set a time limit for debate and block a threatened filibuster.
Reformers wanted that vote process reversed, where the minority party would have to produce 41 votes to prove that a filibuster was viable.
The concessions in the new agreement include easier passage of some judicial appointments; a requirement for filibuster threateners to actually debate on the floor if their party loses the cloture vote; and a provision to allow a minority party to tack on two related amendments to a bill.
Some skeptics in Washington point to another fact, aside from a bipartisan desire for better Senate procedures, for the compromise.
Historically, the party that has won the White House and controlled the Senate fares poorly in midterm elections, and it could be the Democrats that benefit in the long run from rules that give a minority party the power of the filibuster.
If the talking filibuster is to return, it would happen at the start of the next Congress in January 2015. Ironically, Senate rule changes aren’t subject to stalling tactics, so a filibuster couldn’t be mounted to prevent the talking filibuster from returning.
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