By Rob S.
Last week in Washington, as fiscal cliff negotiations stalled and the deadline for a deal crept closer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proffered a potential solution on the Senate floor. McConnell moved for a vote on legislation that would authorize President Obama to extend the national debt limit without congressional approval. Apparently, McConnell’s intent was something other than passage of his proposal, because when Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid accepted the idea for a vote, McConnell did something extraordinary. He filibustered his own proposal.
Cut to Jimmy Stewart on the Senate floor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the 1939 film, Stewart’s character uses the filibuster to orate with superhuman endurance, defending his innocence and exposing political corruption. The contrast with McConnell’s performance last week aptly describes how the filibuster has been perverted: a procedural mechanism once intended to ensure that debate over a topic could not be squelched, now a tool that can be invoked anonymously, without effort or public protest, or to prevent any discussion at all.
One recent development is senators’ use of the filibuster against motions to proceed, which prevents any debate on a bill. It seems absurd, but this mechanism forces the senate to vote on whether to even have a discussion on proposed legislation. From a Law and Literature perspective, the procedural obstruction of public revelation is familiar. In the courtroom context, plea bargains and evidentiary rules provide similar frustrations.
Over the last few years, filibusters have been used in record numbers with great consequence to the legislative process, but with seemingly little consequence for those who abuse the procedure. One of the attractive aspects of filibusters of yore, epitomized in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was the demand for public attention and open discourse. In the past, a filibuster meant a senator’s commitment to speak at length on the record. At the very least, senators stood accountable when they wasted people’s time. Hopefully, with his unprecedented self-filibuster, Senator McConnell will move us closer to reform.