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"Half of official Washington is here to see democracy's finest show, the filibuster," explains a CBS radio announcer as Smith launches into his epic speech. "The right to talk your head off. The American principle of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet, providing always, first, that he does not sit down, second, that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking. The galleries are packed! In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can't see at home: democracy in action."
Use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate dates back to 1837, and over the years it's allowed legislators on both sides of the aisle to protect the minority from being flattened. Strom Thurmond spoke for more than 24 hours to stall passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and a group of Democratic senators used the filibuster to prevent confirmation of ten judges appointed by President Bush. In December 2010, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders spoke for more than eight and a half hours to protest President Obama's deal with the Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts. The Senate can vote to cut off debate, but only with a supermajority, which has shifted back and forth over the past century from two-thirds (66 senators) to three-fifths (60 senators).
Since 2007, however, when the Democrats regained control of the senate, filibusters have skyrocketed, becoming a routine Republican tool for preventing legislative action. Now senators don't have to show up on the floor and speak until they're blue in the face; in fact they can filibuster a bill anonymously and pat themselves on the back for their spiritual kinship with Jefferson Smith. In December 2010, returning senate Democrats unanimously urged majority leader Harry Reid to back filibuster reform. "There need to be changes to the rules to allow filibusters to be conducted by people who actually want to block legislation," argued Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, "instead of people being able to quietly say ‘I object’ and go home." Reid woudn't cooperate.
As the New York Times noted in an editorial this morning, the senate rules can be changed by a simple majority vote on the first day of the session, which means that come January the body can reform the filibuster and stop the endless, knee-jerk obstructionism. A proposal from senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, which came to naught two years ago, offers commonsense ideas for preserving the filibuster without letting it bring the senate to a standstill. Democracy in action is one thing, but democracy inaction is another entirely.