I was introduced to life in the hallowed halls of Congress when I was 12, old enough to tolerate a modicum of boredom, but young enough to recognize absurdity when I saw it. My father was scheduled to attend a conference in D.C. (we lived in Indiana at the time) so it was decided the whole family would go along for the ride. My dad said we’d get to see where and how laws were made (or not, as it turned out) before his conference started.
The first day there, off we went to the Senate gallery, from whence we watched some grizzled “lawmaker” drone on about the number of boxcars sitting, unused, on sidings all over the country.* Happily for me, my tolerance for boredom being strained, we didn’t stay long, and after we left, I asked my dad what law they were talking about.
“Oh, they weren’t talking about a law,” he explained. “That was just a filibuster.” He went on, of course, to explain what that meant.
“Just a filibuster.” That was back in the days when a filibuster (a word which, incidentally, appears nowhere in the Constitution) meant someone had to stand up and speak for hours and hours to keep the senate from voting on a bill he didn’t want to pass. (Save for Margaret Chase Smith, they were all “hes” back then, more’s the pity.) I thought it a strange way for sentient adults to pass the time, but oh, well …
Now, however, the standing up and speaking for hours on end isn’t necessary. As Philip Bump explained in the Washington Post,“… In practical terms, filibusters these days are only rarely hours-long riffs driven by passion for a cause. They are much more frequently hand-wavey threats to offer such a speech, with the end game of forcing legislation to meet a supermajority standard before passage.”
By some arcane process a senator who knows he’s in the minority on the bill in question can, in effect, announce he’s conducting an imaginary filibuster to prevent the proposal moving through the august body enroute to
becoming a law. Sixty votes (a 3/5 majority) are required to overcome the tyranny of the minority he represents and move the proposal along in a process called “cloture.”
Currently, Republicans all over the country have been pushing new state laws to make it ever more difficult for those with Democratic leanings to vote. In response, the House of Representatives, controlled by the Democrats, has passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It is now up to the Senate, where Republicans threaten to block the proposal with a filibuster, to move the process forward.
While the Democrats have a slim majority (48 Dems, 2 Independents, and the tie-breaking vote of VP Kamala Harris) and could either abolish the filibuster or make it harder (by requiring those marathon speeches, for instance), they hesitate. Why? Well, first, they’re not sure they’d have all 50 votes of the aforementioned senators and for another, when they’re the minority party, they sometimes like to use the filibuster themselves.
The fact is that the proposed voting rights act is vital to our democracy. Without it, we face a future in which Republicans can dominate the electoral college without ever receiving a majority of the popular vote. That’s happened twice already in this young millennium and we’ve all seen how that’s turned out. The GOP is now pushing for new restrictions that would make it more difficult for minorities and the disadvantaged to vote in 33 states.
Why? In a recent Supreme Court hearing in Arizona, the attorney representing the Arizona Republican party explained that without the restriction in question, the Republicans would be “at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.” In other words, the Republicans need to stack the deck to win.
Preserve the filibuster? Or preserve democracy? That’s the issue here. Let your senator know which is more important to you.
*Interestingly, the aforementioned trip to the nation's Capitol occurred in the last millennium. Apparently, the boxcar problem remained unsolved for a long time. I googled "boxcars on sidings" and found several newspaper articles complaining about the boxcar problem. They were published in newspapers in 2009. Click here to see the Wall Street Journal coverage.