Rethinking Filibuster in Washington

Today we finished watching the last part of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We have been watching it for the last couple of weeks, a little bit at a time, interwoven with our in-depth exploration of the Constitution. This movie is not only a fabulous story incredibly performed with Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart, and Claude Rains, but it also brings the workings of our Congress, specifically the Senate, to light. The details of expulsion, filibuster, appointment when someone dies, amendments to bills, role of the Vice-president, quorum calls, et al. are painlessly illuminated in this patriotic and romantic picture.

The movie’s message is dark. Though Mr. Smith triumphs at the end, it is not the system that saves him, but rather the guilt with which his colleague becomes overwhelmed. The system remains corrupt. Had Senator Paine’s conscience not caved, who knows whether Mr. Smith would have had any victory at all.

The students are slow to warm to the movie, but by the end are totally engaged, surprised that a movie from “a long time ago” (1939) could hold their attention. They were totally caught up in Mr. Smith’s filibuster on the floor of the Senate, especially guffawing when Mr. Smith decides to read the Constitution of the United States to buy some time (They have been at this task for the last 5 weeks). They laughed at the Vice-President’s snickering and were captivated by the romance between Mr. Smith and his secretary Saunders. KM has, in fact, fallen in love with Mr. Smith and was swooning on the shoulder of a friend as the evils of the Taylor machine were closing in on him.The students were incredibly shocked by the hoodlums of said machine slapping the young reporters of Boys Stuff, Mr. Smith’s back home paper, who trashed their newspapers. I saw the students put their hands over their mouths when the hoodlums ran into the newspaper boys on the road with one of their trucks.

In this movie, the filibuster was used for good. It was meant to stall a vote on a bill filled with graft and deceit. Today Harry Reid announced that he is seeking filibuster reform, the one process in the Senate which has stymied the Senate from moving legislation forward because instead of a simple majority needed to pass legislation, now 60 votes, a supermajority, is needed since there is always the threat of filibuster. Polarization between the parties has caused filibuster to be the practice de rigeur as opposed to only being used for rare but strategic pieces of legislation.

Between 1917 and 1972, only 72 motions of cloture were invoked in the Senate. In this 2011-2012 Congress, so far, 109 motions of cloture have occurred. Republicans filed 139 motions of cloture in 2007-2008, 137 in 2009-2010. The Constitution states that legislation passes with a simple majority, yet the practice, in the Senate at least, requires 60 votes.

And so, legislation flounders and dies, is obstructed with great regularity. The attempt to make the Senate work toward the compromises it was intended to forge (though we are not yet clear what these filibuster reforms might be) is a good goal and one for which even Mr. Smith might rally.

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3 Responses to Rethinking Filibuster in Washington

  1. Jerome Bloom says:

    BRAVO!!!!!!!!!!!FOR THE!!!!!


  2. I argue in my essay that if the U.S. Senate is to represent govenments, then there is a basis for needing a supermajority, for otherwise we would have federal encroachment on the states. But this has already happened, and the senators are elected rather than the state leaders themselves or their delegates, in which case as the Senate is presently situated the filibuster should be eliminated rather than merely made slightly more difficult. See at the Worden Report.

  3. Pingback: Fix the Senate now | Nexus

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