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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Remember the Jimmy Stewart film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”?

I can hear the question, “What’s this got to do with anything?”

Well, I’ll get to that. But first, a little background.



In the movie, Stewart played a junior senator from an unnamed western state, named Jefferson Smith, appointed to fill a senatorial vacancy against the wishes of that state’s political machine.

Smith proposes a bill to give state land for a new campground for an organization he heads up, the Boy Rangers, which works with impoverished kids. But the land is already tagged as the site of a pork-barrel, hydroelectric dam project that represents profits for the political machine. And so the stage is set for a legislative battle.




It’s a good movie, and a central theme of the story is that Smith, aware of the corruption behind the scenes, uses the filibuster to stall a vote that would kill his bill.

The filibuster, for those who’ve been studiously ignoring politics throughout their lives, is a legislative tactic by which a single senator can hold up a vote as long as he or she can keep talking and hold the floor, since leaving the chamber means someone else can take the floor and force a vote.

In the film this involves Stewart staying on his feet and going hoarse over the course of what seems like days, and ultimately fainting in mid-sentence.

As a legislative tactic, the filibuster is seen as a tool of the minority party that offers a way to get around the rule of the majority. It takes a vote of 60 senators to end a filibuster, rather than a simple majority.

The filibuster, I should point out, has a long history. The first use of the basic ploy is attributed to a Roman senator, Cato the Younger, in the year 60 B.C. It has shown up, in one form or another, in various legislative and parliamentary uses ever since.

But it was not until the 1850s, in the U.S., that it got its name, derived from Dutch and Spanish words meaning pirate or “freebooter,” signifying crooks who steal things. The tag is believed to represent pirating or hijacking debate on a bill.

Kind of appropriate, don’t you think? I mean, our elected leaders in Washington are nothing but a bunch of pirates anyhow, and why not call a spade a spade?

The interesting thing today is that Senators no longer have to remain in the senate chamber, on their feet and talking endlessly, to pull off a filibuster. New rules have made it a lot easier to do, and it is a rare filibustering solon who actually stands there and babbles on endlessly.

Anyway, a bunch of pissed off Democrats are threatening to put an end to the filibuster in the new session of Congress, to keep Republicans from blocking legislation.

In just the same way, a bunch of pissed off Republicans tried to do it during George W. Bush’s presidency. In 2003, you may recall, it got the name, “the nuclear option,” from Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who was much given to hyperbole and theatrical chicanery.

The Democrats’ goal is to prevent the Republicans from blocking legislative initiatives or judicial appointments proposed by President Obama that end up in the Senate. The Senate, by the way, is the only place where filibustering still takes place. The House of Representatives got rid of it long ago.

The current crop of Republican senators, horrified at the prospect of losing their favorite tool for frustrating Democrats’ legislation, are crying “foul,” the same way the Democrats did back in 2005, when they were in the minority and regularly used the filibuster for their own purposes.

More thoughtful, less short-sighted Democrats, realizing that their turn in the minority is bound to come around again, are counseling against an end to the filibuster. They know a good tool when they see one.

To my mind, the whole thing is a pig in a poke and should be tossed out. It causes interminable delays in the conduct of serious business, and is an artificial crutch for the party that is not in power.

Getting rid of the filibuster would be one step in making the U.S. Senate abide by that ancient proverb so germane to every walk of life – Keep It Simple, Stupid.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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