This past Thursday, Republican Scott Brown was sworn in as the junior senator from Massachusetts, thus ending the Democrats ability to override a filibuster and pass any legislation that they damn well please.
Yeah, right, like they were doing that before Brown was sworn in. The health care bill had been whittled down so much, I believe all it really offered was discount coupons for a box of Kleenex at the local Walgreens.
Anyway, now that the Democrats have a constant filibuster threat from the other, rather than their own, side of the aisle, what do they do? In order to answer that question, I did some research on the topic, my primary sources being Wikipedia and the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The movie first. Mr. Smith stars Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic Boy Scout-like troop leader who is plucked from obscurity by a corrupt political machine in an unnamed state to replace their just deceased toady in the U.S. Senate, the idea being that Smith is too inexperienced to stop or even recognize the kickbacks and influence peddling that's par for the course in the nation's capitol. But recognize it he eventually does, and balks at an unnecessary dam being built in his home state with federal dollars on land secretly owned by the machine. A corrupt product of that machine, Senator Paine, played by Claude Raines frames Smith for graft, the very same graft Smith was trying to prevent! Disillusioned, Smith is all set to leave Washington for good when his formerly cynical, now idealistic, Chief of Staff, played by Jean Arthur, talks him out of it. Together, they cook up a plan to clear his good name. The next morning, Smith launches a one-man filibuster to prevent both the unnecessary dam and his own expulsion from the Senate. Abandoned by both political parties--actually, I'm not sure there are political parties in this movie--Smith talks nonstop for days, until he collapses on the Senate floor. His conscience pricked, Senator Paine attempts suicide, and, when prevented from doing so, admits that Smith was right all along.
Pretty compelling, huh? But remember, folks, it's only a movie. To find out what happens in real life, I now turn to Wikipedia.
According to Wikipedia, the whole idea is to prevent a tyranny of the majority by the minority. The Constitution, in fact, already has checks and balances between the three equal branches of government to prevent such tyranny, but that wasn't enough, especially after the emergence of political parties. The Constitution does give the Senate the right to make its' own rules, and the filibuster was one of the first rules that it came up with. Basically, a senator, or more likely, a group of senators, who disagrees with a piece of legislation about to be passed by a simple majority, can speak as long as they wish, and about anything they wish, until they either run out of speakers, or 3/5ths of the Senate--60 senators--bring such debate to a close by invoking cloture.
So, the minority could stop legislation, what they considered tyranny, but at a price. As the hours dragged on, and each member took turns reading the entire Bible, phone book, the collected works of Shakespeare, the Encyclopedia Britannica, or even the proposed bill itself, they might ask themselves, "Is this legislation as tyrannical as all that?". Plus, filibusters get more media coverage. People may actually pay attention. One man's tyranny may be another man's voting rights. At least in 1964, when a civil rights bill came before Congress. The majority, meanwhile, just has to show up. If they get tired of just showing up, they either give in, or pressure a few people on the other side to change their minds. In 1964, the filibuster lasted 57 working days, including four Saturdays, until four senators changed their minds, and decided to vote for the now-historic civil rights legislation.
That was then. Since President Obama took office, the Senate minority has filibustered over 100 times. So where's all the media coverage of senators reading from the Bible, phone book, etc?
To quote Wikipedia:
In current practice, Senate Rule 22 permits filibusters in which actual continuous floor speeches are not required...
In the modern filibuster, the senators trying to block a vote do not have to hold the floor and continue to speak as long as there is a quorum.
A quorum is the minimum number of senators needed on the floor to conduct business.
Today, the minority just advises the majority leader that the filibuster is on. All debate on the bill is stopped until cloture is voted by three-fifths (now 60 votes) of the Senate.
So there's no cost, no sacrifice whatsoever, on the part of the minority to stop legislation they don't like. The filibuster has become a simple veto. Tyranny by the minority.
Is there any hope for the majority? Sure:
...the Senate Majority Leader may require an actual traditional filibuster if he or she so chooses.
The current Senate Majority Leader is Harry Reid, whom I defended on a different matter in a previous post. Why doesn't Reid just insist on a traditional filibuster? Reid isn't saying, but the Wikipedia article offers a possible clue:
Some modern Senate critics have called for a return to the old dramatic endurance contest but that would inconvenience all senators who would have to stay in session 24/7 until the filibuster is broken.
Nobody wants to be inconvenienced. Not the majority. Not the minority.
Toward the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, an exhausted Jimmy Stewart turns toward Senator Paine, a former idealist, and, in a hoarse voice, says,
"I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them; because of just one plain simple rule: 'Love thy neighbor.'... And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any other."
But nothing to lose any sleep over.