Is Filibuster Reform Really Worth It Jimmy Stewart Says Yes Jimmy Cagney Says No

Richard Eskow

A couple of weeks ago it looked like Senate Democrats were “fired up and ready to go” on reforming the filibuster system. All of the returning Senate Dems signed a letter calling on Harry Reid to push for change, and that unanimous opinion looked like the foundation for real change. But then two things happened: First, reform of the process seemed to get bogged down in … what else? … process. But there also seemed to be a growing under-the-radar sense that maybe, with their political fortunes waning, this wasn’t the time for Democrats or progressives to weaken the power of the minority.

But the minority would still be able to filibuster. What would be weakened is the ability of any single Senator to paralyze the entire system, and to use that power for negotiations that are little more than blackmail.

When they think of the filibuster, a lot of people picture Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. You remember – with his tie askew, his hair wild, and his eyes filled with the fire of righteousness, speaking up for “the little guy” to an uncaring body of cynical solons: “You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause.”

That’s right: This whole filibuster mess is Frank Capra’s fault. That’s just one more reason why I’ll take John Ford over Capra any day.

The Jimmy Stewart Scenario would still be possible under filibuster reform. The screen character who would be stopped by these reforms would look more like Jimmy Cagney than Jimmy Stewart. Picture Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat, sitting in an easy chair filing his nails like while he waits for the blackmail victims to pay up. You want your bill, he snarls, you’ll do what I tell ya!

Reform would end the practice of secret holds – the Cagney Maneuver – and would require future Jimmy Stewarts to actually be on the floor. It would demand a little more effort, accountability, and responsibility in how the filibuster is used. It would require consideration of amendments from both parties, and would limit post-cloture debate on nominations to two hours.

There have been multiple proposals on the Democratic side, although consensus seems to have centered on the Merkley/Harkin/Udall proposal. But there’s also Al Franken’s subtle yet significant proposal (from 40 to 41 votes need to break a filibuster), Mark Udall’s slightly different package, and some Senators who are fixing on one or two reforms instead of the whole package.

December’s unanimity is becoming January’s ambiguity. There also seem to be increasing concerns about a post-2012 Senate. With Kent Conrad’s retirement announcement, and the fact that more Democratic that Republican incumbents will be up for re-election, there may be a sense that now isn’t the time to push for this kind of reform.
Vermont resident has roughly 60 times the voting power of a California resident. GOP abuse of the filibuster has made this undemocratic body even more undemocratic.

It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. There should be no reason for Democrats in principled opposition to ever use the secret hold. Real-life filibusters for good causes – jobs, Social Security, Medicare, etc. – should help Democrats politically, even if they’re not particularly good for their health. And why shouldn’t any President be allowed to get votes on his or her nominees? If one such nominee is so bad – so corrupt, misguided, whatever – a public filibuster could raise the public’s awareness of his or her flaws.

Senate Democrats would also like more than a little ridiculous if their unanimous call for change came to nothing. To quote the line that keeps echoing in Jimmy Stewart’s big scene: Will the Senators yield?

Ezra’s right: House Republicans complaining about the filibuster should become the new definition of “chutzpah.” But there’s no reason not to insist the Senate do filibusters right.

Have you seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington lately? It’s cloyingly, suffocatingly, intolerably self-important and hokey. (As I was saying, I’m a John Ford man myself.) But it’s like the character said: “I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too. “

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