Anyone who’s watched Frank Capra’s
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
knows what a filibuster is: the Senate has no time limit on debate, so
a senator can just talk and talk and talk for hours, thus preventing
the Senate from taking a vote. This can be stopped if 60 senators vote
to halt debate (a cloture vote), allowing Senate business to resume.
Gary Gamber has a
of the filibuster. One interesting twist, though, is that — if
that site is correct — since 1975 Senate rules allow for the
procedural filibuster: if 41 or more senators to simply say that they
intend to filibuster, the filibuster is assumed, the motion is
dismissed, and business resumes.
In other words, a senator can say “I intend to filibuster. Then you’ll
have a cloture vote to shut me up, but 40 of my colleagues and I will
vote against cloture, so the motion will fail; I’ll keep talking until
I run out the clock, and the vote on the issue I care about won’t take
place. So let’s just save ourselves some time and simply pretend that
that’s what happened.”
This seems very similar to the scene in
The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
where Arthur Dent is lying in front of the bulldozers to prevent them
from demolishing his house.
tells the foreman that since he’s going to be doing this all day, and
since the workers are resigned to this anyway, then they don’t
actually need Arthur there, and he can just run down to the
Unlike the Senate, Douglas Adams’s fictional bulldozers do demolish
Arthur’s house as soon as he’s not there to stop them.
And this illustrates a weakness of the procedural filibuster.
Filibusters work because people can and do tie up the floor of the
Senate, preventing real business from occurring. Filibusters are also
a good thing, because they prevent the majority from running roughshod
over the minority. If a senator feels strongly enough about an issue,
he can prevent the vote from occurring, even though he is in the
minority, as long as he can convince 40 others to let him go on. At
the same time, the fact that a filibuster is physically demanding
helps reserve it for those cases when negotiation fails.
But ultimately, it depends for its effectiveness on the senator in
question being able and willing to walk the walk: to talk for as long
as it takes, without a bathroom break if necessary, until either he or
the rest of the Senate gives in. (Though I think there are rules for
allowing two or more senators to take turns, to give each other a
Fortunately, the majority leader has the option of calling the
filibustering senator’s bluff: bypass the procedural part where the
majority and minority anticipate each other’s moves, and actually go
through the motions: talk, cloture motion, count the votes.
Unfortunately, I understand the current majority leader, Harry Reid,
has failed to use this power, leading to an unprecedented number of
Anticipating a series of events and acting as if they had actually
happened only works if all of the players agree that that’s how things
will play out. In reality, a lot of senators are old, and while they
love to hear themselves talk, even they aren’t necessarily up to the
task of speaking for 20 hours straight, or whatever it actually takes
to block a vote. It wouldn’t hurt Reid to remind those who are abusing
the power of the filibuster what a real one actually entails.