Monday, May 23, 2005


Historically the rare filibuster provided the Senate's best theater; participants had to be ready for days or weeks of free-wheeling debate, and all other business was blocked until one side conceded or a compromise acceptable to all was found. In the modern era the number of filibusters have increased but drama is rare. Disappointment awaits visitors to the Senate gallery who expect a real-life version of actor Jimmy Stewart's climactic oration in the 1939 classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They are likely to look down on an empty floor and hear only the drone of a clerk reading absent senators' names in a mind-numbing succession of quorum calls. Often the filibusterers do not even have to be on the floor, nor do the bills they are opposing.
-- CQ Encyclopedia of American Government

Many volumes have been written about the Senate filibuster recently.
We've heard the good and the bad; that the filibuster is a hallowed tradition, and that it is an unconstitutional outrage. We know from history that it has been used for purposes high and low, by both political parties, and against both legislation and appointees.
Now, we hear that a compromise has been reached that will preserve the right to filibuster while letting some of George W. Bush's more odious judicial nominees have a vote in the full Senate. I'm not sure I like the terms of the deal.
I do, however, have some thoughts about the filibuster itself and why it is a potentially important tool. At its best, what it provides is time for reflection, time to gather evidence and to rally support. All of those are positive attributes in a deliberative body like the Senate.Both sides in the debate can use the filibuster period to sway opinions and build strength.
However, I also think there is a reasonable argument to be made that a filibuster should have to be "live" -- real people speaking on the topic at hand rather than dull reciting of names and addresses from phone books or, even worse, remarks simply posted in the Congressional Record. The rules I think should be changed are the ones that allow the filibuster to become a mere blocking of debate rather than an extension of debate. The filibuster should be about talking, persuading, arguing the core of one's convictions until one's apponents, whether from fatique or discomfort, pay attention.
And there is probably further value in "live" filibustering as well in that it becomes a battle of wills, a contest to see which side on an issue is more strongly invested.
But the bottom line is that there's nothing wrong with slowing down a controversial vote; time and words are often exactly what is needed to win hearts and minds. And there's nothing wrong with requiring that 3/5 of the members vote to move on. It's certainly preferable to changing the rules just because you can't win under the rules you agreed to follow.
So we appear to have averted the "nuclear" option for now. But it will come up again, probably the very next time Democrats consider a Bush nominee to be too extreme to stomach. So it's worth remembering what would make the filibuster a valuable tool in support of democracy again.