Anyone who has seen an endearing Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington should have at least some idea of what a Senate filibuster is, how it works, and what it aims to accomplish.
For those that do not know, however, it is pretty easy to understand.
A filibuster is defined by Merriam Webster as “the use of extreme dilatory tactics in an attempt to delay or prevent action, especially in a legislative assembly.”
The filibuster can be used in the Senate because the rules allow unlimited debate on a bill. Thus, if a minority opinion cannot get enough votes to defeat a desired bill, they can engage in a filibuster in an attempt to delay discussion of said bill until the majority tires and moves on. A filibuster can be carried out by a group or by a single person, and the speech need not be on the topic of the bill in question.
In recent news, this age-old practice has been under fire, with opponents looking to restructure the filibuster. Essentially, more limits would be set into place so that a simple majority vote (51 votes to pass, a change from the current 50) would be the only motion needed to end most debate and move to the next agenda item.
According to an article in the New York Times, such changes “would remake a Senate that was long run on compromise and gentlemen’s agreements into something more like the House, where the majority rules almost absolutely.”
Yet the purpose of two separate, and inherently different, legislative bodies is so that they balance each other out. There are different rules for a reason, and the filibuster is an essential part of Senate procedure.
The purpose of the Senate is to create a more balanced legislative body than the House of Representatives, which runs on majority rules. The Senate was created a forum of compromise and a place to hash out ideas.
The filibuster, for all its flaws, is still an important tool in that strive for debate.
True, the filibuster could do with some sprucing up: Where previously, senators wishing to move for a filibuster would actually have to get up and speak, that is no longer the case. Senators can now simply threaten to filibuster or call for a filibuster without actually having to get up and speak.
Perhaps today’s Senators should look back to Jimmy Stewart’s rendition of a filibuster and, as he did, they should get up, speak passionately and give reason as to why they believe a certain bill should be defeated. After all, if the Senate is a forum for debate, and the filibuster is a handy tool in that debate, then it should be used to its full advantage and purpose.
In that regard, the practice might need some reform, but not to the extent that is currently being argued in court. The filibuster practice should be preserved for its original purpose, but it should not be stripped completely.
In the Senate, the minority still has some power and a major source of that comes from the ability to filibuster. Without it, or with it stripped of most of its integrity, the rights of the minority are almost null and void. In that case, with both the Senate and the House running on majority rules, the minority might never get a word in edgewise.
The filibuster is a practice that could use some minor tweaking, but it is a practice that is important to the function of the Senate. Maybe more so than that, we should look at those using the filibuster ineffectively. If reform is needed, look to the senators employing the practice rather than the filibuster itself.
It is not the filibuster that needs change, it is those using, and abusing, a once-useful tool.