CONGRESS : Once Used Sparingly, Filibuster Becomes a Common Obstacle : GOP senators rely on the tactic to tie up foes in the majority. House Democrats, whose ‘closed rules’ handcuff Republicans, call for a change.
“I find that if I yield only for a question or a point of order that I can hold this floor almost until doomsday,” freshman lawmaker Jeff Smith told his Senate colleagues back in 1939. “In other words, I’ve got a piece to speak and, blow hot or cold, I’m going to speak it.”
Jeff Smith of course was only a cinematic creation, portrayed by actor James Stewart in the memorable 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But there is nothing make-believe about the practice of filibustering that the movie celebrated. In fact, as the Congress grinds down the pre-election home stretch, congressional Democrats claim that such delays are more of an obstacle to legislation than ever.
A recent study released by the Democratic Study Group, a research group for House members, suggested that senators, most of them Republican, staged more filibusters in the last Congress, the 102nd, than in the entire 19th Century. And evidence indicates that talkathons are being mounted in this current Congress nearly as rapidly, forcing 55 motions to limit debate so far, compared to 62 in all of the last two-year session.
“In the past the filibuster was used sparingly,” contends Oklahoma Rep. Mike Synar, chairman of the Study Group said. “Now not only is it used a lot, but just the threat of it being used has made it harder for us to deal with issues that are vital like the economic stimulus package and the crime bill.”
From the inception, senators have always considered their chamber the more deliberative body of Congress, and one of their most cherished rights is the ability of each member to speak almost endlessly on legislation. It is that right that gave birth to the filibuster.
Under Senate rules, a filibuster can be halted only by passing a motion for cloture, requiring 60 votes. Since the Senate now has 44 Republicans and 56 Democrats, the majority party often finds it difficult to get to 60.
The result is that often the objection of one member raises the threat of a filibuster and is enough to delay action. It has become the most common of an array of procedural maneuvers Senate Republicans have been employing to tie up Democrats trying to enact President Clinton’s ambitious domestic agenda, including health care, crime and economic stimulus legislation.
“If it’s not a senator objecting to your bill, then it’s a senator amending your bill so that other people will object,” says Karl Gawell, a lobbyist for the Wilderness Society. “In the past few years we’ve seen a real explosion in both the willingness and desire of people on Capitol Hill to get in each other’s faces.”
All this contentiousness has led House Democrats to take the unusual step of agitating for change in the way the “other body,” conducts its business.
“We don’t have the luxury of not butting in,” Synar said. The rise in filibustering “is having an impact on the House. It doesn’t do the House any good to move legislation on a variety of fronts only to have it die in the Senate.”
For this increase in acrimony, some say the Democrats have mainly themselves to blame, particularly the way they have used the rules of the House to dominate that body where Republicans have been in a minority for 40 years.
There, Democrats have come to rely heavily on “closed rules,” which establish the procedure for debating legislation and often give the GOP little opportunity to make amendments.
“They squeeze out the Republicans,” said Charles O. Jones of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “So Republicans would argue in defense of the filibuster: ‘Look what the Democrats have done in the House. The Senate is a place where we can still maintain some rights for the minority party, and we damn well are not going to give it up.’ ”
Republican Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, who served in the House for six years before entering the Senate in 1979, thinks the influx of former House members to the Senate has made the atmosphere more partisan and less clubby.
“The place has changed,” he said. “You don’t have the collegiality you used to have. You don’t have members share time together socially. The club doesn’t exist anymore.”
Cohen, who has participated in such filibusters as last year’s against the Clinton economic stimulus program, nevertheless thinks the practice is used too often. “I think we ought to be more selective,” he said. “You ought to be involved in a filibuster only when you have major issues of great disagreement.”
Filibustering has changed over the years. In the climactic scene of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a bleary-eyed Jimmy Stewart keeled over on the Senate floor after hours of nonstop orating.
That’s not likely to happen to any of today’s filibusterers because the Senate in the mid-1960s adopted a two-track system, which sets aside blocks of time for extended debate on the particular measure being filibustered without halting all other business before the Senate. The change effectively made filibusters less of an oratory endurance contest and more of a procedural tactic.
Some critics claim that by making filibusters more convenient, the Senate has encouraged their use.
But returning to the old ways “wouldn’t solve the problem,” argues Adam Glickman, deputy director of Action, Not Gridlock, a new bipartisan group whose members include ex-senators from both parties that is campaigning to build public concern about the increase in filibustering. “If you make them talk all the time, that would just cause more gridlock.”
Perhaps fittingly, delaying tactics were first used in the Senate on legislation in 1789 setting forth the location of the new nation’s capital. Opponents stalled rather than approving a site on the Susquehanna River.
According to the Democratic Study Group report, the first genuine filibusters did not begin until the 1840s, and there were only 16 filibusters during the remainder of the century. By contrast in the 102nd Congress, the Democratic Study Group survey tallied 35 filibusters, exceeding the previous high of 24 in the 101st Congress and a total of 22 so far in this Congress.
Filibuster critics concede that statistics for the distant past may understate the number of filibusters, because of the lack of records. But they also say that current figures underestimate the influence of filibusters because they don’t measure the impact on legislation of threatened filibusters.
Despite the criticism, prospects for reform are not bright, if only because rules changes must be approved by a two-thirds majority.
Says former Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a member of Action, Not Gridlock: “I think this filibustering is going to make term limits look like a good idea to most people.”
Times researcher Pat Welch in Washington contributed to this story.
A Rhetorical Roadblock
Filibusters are used by both liberals and conservatives. In 1964, a group filibustered a civil rights bill for 74 days.
The rule: Under Senate rules, any senator can talk as long as he or she wants, unless 60 senators vote to stop it by putting a time limit on debate. The House does not have filibusters.
How filibuster is used: When a senator or a small group of senators object to legislation but don’t have the votes to defeat it, they can hold the floor indefinitely, preventing a vote.
Strategy: The tactic is especially effective at the end of a session when the Senate is eager to adjourn but wants to vote on a measure before it quits. The talkative minority can force the majority to accept a compromise or give up altogether.
ON THE RISE
Average filibusters per year
Sources: Congressional Research Service, Associated Press, Times staff