The filibuster. This U.S. Senate rule-of-last-resort isn’t just theatrics, although it can be theatrical.
During unsuccessful attempt to pass civil rights legislation in 1957, segregationist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond gave the longest filibuster by single senator. Thurmond stood for 24 hours and 18 minutes to block the legislation, using irrelevant topics, including his grandmother’s biscuit recipe.
More recently, Texas republican Sen. Ted Cruz held the floor for 21 hours during a showdown whether or not pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government. Cruz said he would “speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I’m no longer able to stand.” Of course he eventually yielded and government operations got their funding approved.
The filibuster allows for continuous and unlimited debate by a group or a single senator on an issue. This was true for the first 130 or so years of the senate. Now-a-days a silent filibuster is the more commonly used method of stifling an up or down vote. If enough senators say they will filibuster to block a measure or presidential appointment from reaching a 60-vote super majority — the magic number it takes to break the filibuster — a measure taken will likely die or go back to the drawing board.
The filibuster is not specifically in the Constitution. Our founding document gives the Senate the ability to write its own procedural rules — rules which only take 51 votes to change.
The filibuster is another one of those messy, and politically pesky, checks and balances which our early leaders put in place to ensure the majority didn’t hold unlimited power and one political party didn’t have a blank legislative check.
Its been implemented when a single senator doesn’t like a bill. Historically, decorum persists, and after having the floor for hours on end, the senator will usually concede. But sometimes the filibuster is used for ideological purposes, to block the agenda of the majority party.
As polarization has set in over the last 15 years, ideological agendas have possessed this Senate rule. Republican’s used it to block President Obama’s appointees to executive branch and low judicial court appointees. The Democrats used the tool Thursday to block President Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court nominee Neal Gorsuch.
In both instances, the Senate majorities “went nuclear,” changing the Senate rules so the filibuster did not apply to the nominees being presented.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tried to broker a deal with then-democratic majority to stop Sen. Harry Reid from eliminating the filibuster for low court appointments, and he recently called Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to do so to get Gorsuch through on an up-or-down vote “a dark day” for the institution of the Senate.
Our system of government relies on compromise and concession, and respect of your opponent. For a democracy to function, neither party can be totally obstructionists. The use of tools like the filibuster, or the ability for majority party to change Senate rules, should be rare occurrences — not a go-to trump card.
Thursday’s vote to eliminate the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees might have eroded any remaining trust or respect our major party leaders had for one another. The incentive to reach across the isle for consensus is now gone.
A Senate without compromise? Can I filibuster?
Contact Mike Mendenhallat mmendenhall@ newtondailynews.com