I was quite pissed a few weeks back when the Senate voted against the proposed bill that would have expanded background checks on gun purchasers. After all, the mantra of the NRA for years has been “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Along comes proposed legislation to address exactly that notion: background checks on people who wish to purchase guns. Why then, would the NRA and other gun proponents argue so strongly against legislation aimed not so much at guns, but at people?
Apologies in advance to Barbra Streisand, but it seems that, according to the NRA (sing along with me, folks):
People who kill people,
Are the luckiest people in the world.
But I digress. How, I asked myself, could only 46 senators, fewer than half of the 100 in the Senate, kill a piece of legislation that was supported by 90% of Americans? The answers are “filibuster” and “cloture.”
When I decided to post about filibustering, I thought I was being quite clever in creating a persona named Philip Uster as a literary device for that infamous congressional procedure. However, after doing a Google search on “Philip Uster,” I found that I wasn’t quite as clever as I thought I was.
First, I learned that there is (or was?) a band named Philip Uster and the House Floor (cute, huh?). Second, I came across a blog called Kemstone’s Journal that beat me to it in a February 2010 posting about a very influential, albeit fictional, 101st senator named Philip Uster.
So what do those two words, filibuster and cloture, actually mean?
Let’s start with filibuster. The word originally derived from a Dutch term for pirate, robber, or “freebooter.” It was defined as someone who engaged in illegal activities for self-gain.
It has since evolved. According to Dictionary.com, a filibuster is the use of obstructive tactics by a member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored or to force a decision against the will of the majority. It’s also an exceptionally long speech, as one lasting for a day or days, or a series of such speeches to accomplish this purpose.
Philip Uster...I mean the filibuster...was born in 1806 when the Senate changed its rules, enabling a way to delay or block floor votes. The first actual filibuster in the Senate occurred in 1837. But it wasn’t until the 1930s when the filibuster really came of age.
Senator Huey Long of Louisiana used it against bills that he thought favored the rich over the poor. He would take up time—once up to 15 hours—by reciting Shakespeare and reading recipes. The record for the longest individual speech, however, belongs to South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Thurman started speaking at 8:54 p.m. on August 28, 1957 and did not stop until 9:12 p.m. on the 29th. To prepare himself for his filibuster, Thurman took a steam bath earlier in the day to rid his body of excess liquid in order to avoid the potential for any “accidents” on the Senate floor. He had a supply of cough drops and malted milk tablets, and he allowed others to make short remarks and ask questions during his time, enabling him to sneak off to the cloakroom to gobble a sandwich.
And best of
all, he had his aide wait in the cloakroom with a pail in case of an “emergency evacuation.” Seriously, I’m not making that up!
That brings us to the other term, “cloture.” It used to be that a filibuster would end when the senator (or senators) engaging in it could no longer continue. But with cloture, three-fifths of the senators (60 out of 100) can invoke cloture to end a debate and cause an immediate vote to be taken.
In the 60s, Southern Democrats attempted to block the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by collectively engaging in a filibuster that lasted for 75 hours! In fact, it was cloture, used only the second time since 1927, that ended the Southern Democrats’ 75-hour anti-civil rights filibuster.
Silent but deadly
In the 1970s, the Senate introduced the concept of the “silent filibuster,” which enabled members to indicate that they merely intended to filibuster to block a measure. To bring this “non-filibuster” to an end in order to vote on the question, at least 60 senators must vote for cloture.
Filibusters used to be the exception. For example, during Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year tenure as president, the Senate used the filibuster “talkathon” a total of six times. Now they appear to be the norm and are regularly used as blocking tactics for nearly any significant legislation or nomination.
Since the Democrats regained majority control of the Senate, the Republicans have applied filibuster threats at a frequency not seen before in American politics. In fact, since 2007, the Republican minority has filibustered more than 380 times!
The Republican strategy since Obama took office has been crystal
clear: obstruct everything. The GOP battle cry has
been to stop Obama from passing legislation at all costs. If Obama supports it,
they oppose it, even if “it” was something they previously supported or even proposed.
Using the filibuster, or just the threat of filibuster, Republicans have essentially blocked almost all Obama initiatives, including the latest common sense proposal to expand background checks for gun purchases, by requiring a “super majority” of senators for passage.
In the Senate today no significant legislation can be introduced, no nominations considered, no votes taken without a super majority of 60 votes. Thanks to these arcane procedural rules on filibusters and cloture, it requires only 41 senators out of 100 to quash a bill.
So much for “majority rules.”