December 3, 2012

VIEW FROM AWAY: 'Silent' filibusters abuse hallowed tradition

The Sacramento Bee

Popular notions of the U.S. Senate filibuster, the practice of talking bills to death or delaying their passage, tend to come from film, such as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," or from legendary past examples.

In the past, senators actually had to stand on the floor and talk all day and all night to keep debate going. That naturally limited filibusters.

In the last decade, however, filibusters haven't worked that way. The Senate allows "silent" filibusters -- the mere threat of a filibuster -- to force the majority to assemble 60 votes to cut off debate and move legislation. These "pseudo-filibusters," or "obstructionism on the cheap," have turned the filibuster from a tool of last resort to a regular part of Senate procedure.

No longer do senators attempt to put together a majority coalition to carry the day. They threaten filibusters and the business of the Senate grinds to a halt.

This is not a hallowed tradition, but a clear abuse. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used to oppose changes, but now supports reform.

"I think the rules have been abused, and we are going to work to change them," Reid said recently. "We will not do away with the filibuster, but we will make the Senate a more meaningful place. We are going to make it so we can get things done."

That's the right stance.

In our constitutional republic, the majority is supposed to rule, with checks and balances to prevent rash decisions. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 22, "the fundamental maxim of republican government ... requires that the sense of the majority should prevail."

By adopting changes to its rules, the Senate would assure that the minority could use the filibuster, but the will of the majority would prevail after a reasonable period of public deliberation -- restoring the principle of majority rule.

-- The Sacramento Bee

Nov. 28

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