Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Silent filibusters

As I was reading an AP story about how a defense bill that included an end to a ban on gays serving openly in the military was defeated in the Senate 56-for, 43-against, I was thinking: Shades of the so many filibusters, over so many years, against civil rights legislation.

But wait a minute. The story never mentioned a filibuster. Yet the bill was defeated on an apparent cloture vote needing 60 affirmative votes to pass. What gives?

That's when I remembered a New York Review of Books article I read a month or so ago. It said that traditional filibusters (ala James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") are rare now because things have changed. When hearing noise about a filibuster, the side favoring a threatened pieced of legislation will initiate a cloture motion. It can stymie a filibuster, but only with a 60-40 or more vote. (So the 56-43 vote on the issue Tuesday came four votes short.) National news stories just talk about Senate rules that require 60 votes, not wanting to bore their dull readers with the details.

The result is that Democratic voters have to wonder why a government run by a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress is too inept to pass its agenda. Republicans, who have forced Senate cloture votes at a rate recently at roughly twice the rate of Democrats in the past decade, just might have figured this out.

This week's gay-rights Senate vote certainly is another in a long history of conservatives working to put down people they conceive as unlike them - and using exceptions to majority rule to do so. It is vital to remember that the whole idea of a filibuster is, on important occasions when Congress goes nuts, a lifeline. But the idea of using it as one more oft-used obstructionist tool is something else. How many of us really want a dumb-head minority blocking every needed change?

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