Mr. Smith Goes to Washington should be considered required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in politics. The film – about an idealistic youth leader who suddenly finds himself appointed to the U.S. Senate – is the best example of how reality often does not stack up with our perceptions. Mr. Smith goes to Washington, his mouth agape at the majesty of the Capitol dome, his eyes wide with the grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial, but his mind appalled at the corruption of the people.
While fighting against a crooked back-door deal in the Senate he finds that his only weapon is the filibuster.
In a movie filled with monologues, a journalist, reporting on lowly Senator Smith’s battle, is one of the best.
Half of official Washington is here to see democracy’s finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that 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, second, that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking. The galleries are packed. In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can’t see at home. DEMOCRACY IN ACTION.
Democracy’s finest show. Free speech in its most dramatic form. Democracy in action. You would be hard-pressed to find such similar sentiment about the filibuster today. As influential liberal thinker Paul Krugman writes,
“The truth is that given the state of American politics, the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government. Senators themselves should recognize this fact and push through changes in those rules, including eliminating or at least limiting the filibuster.”
Nancy Pelosi was a little less blunt in her attack, saying
“A constitutional majority is 51 votes.”
Some Democratic Senators have advanced amendment to reform the long-standing process. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced a “nuclear option” which would call for the Vice President to declare that the Senate does not have to abide by rules passed decades ago and that a simple majority is all that is needed. Senators Harkin and Shaheen (D-NH) introduced a less explosive option which outlines a four-step process that over the course of prescribed number of days would lower the number of votes required to end a filibuster down to a bare majority.
But is the filibuster being abused? Is it merely a procedural relic unsuited to today’s Senate? These are the questions many pundits have been asking. These are the wrong questions. They focus on the procedural process rather than the people who are employing it.
Political scientist Barbara Sinclair did some historical research and found that 8% of major legislation faced a filibuster in the 1960s. Today that number is closer to 70%. But what has changed in that time? It is not the procedure. The filibuster rule has actually softened. Up until 1975, 67 votes were required (rather than the current 60) to break a filibuster. So it must be the people invoking it. In that vein, Jay Cost put together a chart demonstrating the polarization of the parties over the past 45 years.
As the graph shows, there is a glaring hole in the middle of the ideological spectrum. Unlike past Congress’ almost no Senator toes the moderate line and no Senator has dared break the ideological mold.
In a governing body that demands broad consensus to get anything done, growing partisanship (on both sides of the aisle) is the finger that pulls the filibuster trigger. To that end we should expect a rise in the use of the filibuster. As Cost explains,
As the parties drift apart ideologically, the majority party will more likely introduce legislation that the minority party can’t accept, giving the latter a stronger incentive to block it via the filibuster. . . In other words, thanks to the filibuster an ideologically extreme majority party cannot simply enact its policy preferences as it sees fit. Instead, it must either find common ground with some on the other side, or do nothing.
In other words, Republicans have dramatically increased the use of the filibuster, but only in response to attempts by Democrats to push through increasingly liberal legislation. Moreover, this is a carefully weighted system. With Democrats holding 59 votes – they only need be slightly bipartisan – a reward for their overwhelming wins in 2008. in fact they only need to win over one Republican vote in the Senate.
Rather than win GOP votes, Democratic initiatives have been bleeding from within their own party. On nearly every key piece of legislation there have been massive defections from centrist Democrats that threatened to derail the bill. For instance, 39 Democrats voted against health care reform in the House. 38 Democrats voted against the new jobs bill. 37 Democrats voted against an increase in the debt limit. Some may want to lay “blame” on Republicans for marching lock-step against these bills, but the fact that centrist Democrats often join them is evidence that the ideological bent of the legislation was too far Left to court any votes.
Regardless of who we point the finger at, both parties would be wise to take lessons from the increasing use of the filibuster. Democrats must learn that it is not being wielded as a purely partisan weapon, but is being used as a defensive tool against a too liberal agenda. Republicans must learn to limit its use to fighting partisan overreaching in the legislative agenda. Both sides must tone down the vocal attacks.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) who now supports eliminating the filibuster was once laid out a defense that would have made Mr. Smith proud. In true Jimmy Stewart form he said,
“[A]t this moment there are those who are planning what I consider to be an assault on the very principles of this Constitution. There are those who wish to change the rules of the Senate and in changing the rules of the Senate, defy tradition, change the rules in the middle of the game, and have a full frontal assault on the unique nature of this institution. That, I think, is an abuse of power. I think it goes way too far. It ignores our Founding Fathers. This nuclear option ignores the Constitution.. . . It is an assault on the principle and value of checks and balances. It is an attempt by the majority party in the Senate to ram through nominees who will not pledge to protect the most important rights of the American people. It is an attempt to say we cannot demand of the President’s nominees that each person be balanced and moderate and committed to the goals of ordinary Americans.”
Like the Capitol Dome and Lincoln Memorial which Mr. Smith stared at with a sense of wonder, the filibuster remains a monument to Democracy. But as Mr. Smith realized, it is the people that exist within and around these monuments that must change if we are to live up to their grandeur.
Brandon Greife is the Political Director of the College Republican National Committee. Read more at www.crnc.org