For the first time I’m watching West Wing. Last night I saw an installment about a filibuster. I was surprised to find that it reflected the same understanding I’d grown up with. You know, like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, or, for the younger set, like Rand Paul recently.
The type of filibuster I grew up understanding involved a Senator or group of Senators taking the floor in a Senate debate and not yielding it to a vote on the issue unless forced to do so via a 2/3 majority vote of the body as a whole. Other than that, the only way to stop a filibuster was the Senator’s collapse, for he had to keep standing and talking so long as he held the floor. That’s how most of them actually ended, in fact.
I was surprised because I had been told that the rules for a filibuster had been changed during Clinton’s administration, and I assumed West Wing was more recent than that. I checked it out and, while there was some overlap, the majority of West Wing was produced during Bush’s administration, including the episode in question. Of course, the current practice most often referred to as filibustering has only been in use consistently since Obama has been in office, so filibustering, as the public now knows it, has undergone great changes since those earlier days.
It is vitally important that the public comes to understand the differences.
But maybe this is just another example of the Orwellian way things are referred to these days. For many years now the conservative wing has taken great care to distort language so that terminology fits their purposes best. For example, the death tax is now how the estate tax is commonly referred to. The death tax seems so much better for heir purposes. Little in that terminology alludes to millions falling into the hands of a new aristocracy who’s only contribution to society was being born. Liberals also try to utilize this technique, but have mostly failed. So it may be that filibuster is not the correct word to use for what has actually been going on. But that’s what has been being used.
The way works now, filibuster usually means utilizing a technique which, instead of stopping a vote, stops the debate before it is entered into at all. This has been the norm since the republican minority decided they would use the new rule to prevent any consideration of issues Obama might bring forth after winning the white house back in 2008.
The difference is huge. By this method, the old fashioned filibuster virtually never is exercised, although it is still an option. Instead, issues which might get filibustered in the old sense just never get to the floor–hence the filibuster needs not be used. That way the Senate never has to waste time in filibuster while some outlier ties them up waiting for him/her to wear out. Of course, as illustrated by Rand Paul, it actually guaranteed only that the true filibuster would fall to people who are further out.
Problem is, a minority can, without the effort of filibustering, prevent the Senate from considering anything to which they object. This is a complete reversal of the power that rules the Senate. Whereas the old filibuster was a legitimate tool intended to prevent the tyranny of the majority, the current filibuster encourages a tyranny of the minority, who can’t actually get anything they want approved, but who can stop anything from being considered. The result, as we have seen, is a Congress that does nothing.