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Posted at 04:36 PM ET, 11/15/2012

The ghost of Jimmy Stewart and the live filibuster

Filibuster reform is haunted.

It’s haunted, and that haunting could undermine reform.

Filibuster reform is haunted by Jimmy Stewart.


Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” (Associated Press)
It may mean that we get reforms that just don’t work.

Elizabeth Warren understands (how could she not?) that reform is badly needed in the dysfunctional Senate. Yet she builds her argument around romantic, irrelevant pining for the filibuster as portrayed in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Or see the New York Times editorial earlier this week. The Times, too, buys into the romantic notion that change would come if “Senators could not hide in cloakrooms but would have to face the public on camera to hold up a judge’s confirmation, a budget resolution or a bill.”

Malarkey.

The idea that Republicans would surrender if only they were forced to stand up and fight for their views is, well, totally divorced from the reality of what politicians are like. Republicans — any minority party, on almost any issue — would be very happy to hold the floor indefinitely. It’s free publicity for them. And they care little that nothing else can get done in the meantime. They’re in the minority; the things they want aren’t going to happen anyway!

That’s why it’s the majority party that benefits from avoiding live, talking, filibusters. Indeed, under current rules, the majority could force a live filibuster at any time; there’s just no point in doing it. The demise of live filibusters isn’t what caused the explosion of filibusters, and forcing live filibusters by itself isn’t going to end anything.

Of course, it is possible to change the rules to filibusters to defeat that way, but why would you want to do it? If you want majority-party rule, just pass it. If you want some modified system (which is what I favor), just pass it.

The thing is, any modified system — and regardless of what I or any other reformer wants, that’s what it’s going to take to get action in the incoming Senate — really does need careful design. What’s the real goal? How can you really preserve the protection for minorities that senators want, without giving a minority party an absolute veto on everything? How can you preserve the influence of individual senators and the ability of majorities to act? The truth is that those are actually very difficult questions.

And none of it has anything at all to do with Jimmy Stewart.

The funny thing is that the live filibuster does have a place in the Senate, and that place is totally secure. It’s not for winning; it’s not for blocking anything. It’s for a lone, solitary cry; it’s a way to shine a little publicity on something when a senator is faced with hopeless odds.

After all, that’s what Jimmy Stewart was doing in the movie.

But in real life, it’s not supposed to win; it’s just a short bid for attention, whether it’s used by Bernie Sanders or Al D’Amato or, yes, Strom Thurmond. Real filibusters have rarely (if ever) been “live” ones, and there’s absolutely no reason they should be.

So reformers: Just forget about forcing senators to the floor to talk. That’s not the problem, and it’s not the solution. It’s not even Frank Capra’s best movie. So go watch, I don’t know, “It Happened One Night,” forget all about the live filibuster and get to work on getting reform right. 

By  |  04:36 PM ET, 11/15/2012

 
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