How to Freeboot

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The word Filibuster goes back a long way.  It comes to us from the Dutch and the Spanish (Filibustero) and literally means “freebooter”.    As a legal practice, it’s a way of “talking to death” a particular bill. A minority of Senators can talk for as long as they want about nearly anything they want until their demands are met for a particular law.  In theory it’s a way of establishing a check on the power of the majority.   They can and will be heard at any time they wish to exercise their right to do so. Well, that’s how it worked in the olden days.  Now days you can reserve your right to filibuster and single handedly kill any debate on a law.  Americans would probably be wholly ignorant of such arcane parliamentary procedure if it wasn’t for Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.  That and the fact that the use of the filibuster has skyrocketed in recent years.

The funny thing is, the existence of the filibuster was a mistake in American politics.  The “Founding Fathers” never envisioned anything like the filibuster.  The filibuster was born in 1805 with an attempt to reform the rule of the senate; the significance of which no one really recognized at the time.  Aaron Burr fresh from killing Alexander Hamilton decided that the parliamentary rule books were too complicated and decided to simplify them.  In the process, he threw out a largely unknown and little used rule called the “previous question” motion.  This  simply ends debate and moves the motion forward for a vote.  At the time there was no such thing as a filibuster.  The Senate had never really considered such a thing.  So, the Senate tossed it out.  The house with nearly an identical rule book kept theirs in and never developed a filibuster.  It wasn’t until 1837 that that there was what we would consider a filibuster.  The term “filibuster’ itself wasn’t used in this way until the 1850s when one senator accused another senator of filibustering some sort of bill.  In this case he was referring to a military action to slow or delay the advance of the enemy.  In the next 60 or 70 years there were numerous attempts to kill the filibuster that were unsuccessful.  However, the senate was successful in putting forth cloture rules starting in about 1917 and continuing onward.

The Senate has always been a cantankerous body of old spoilsports for reasons that have nothing to do with the filibuster but the filibuster certainly didn’t help.  As the country has grown so has the need for the civil servants and the the “advice and consent” aspect of the constitution has grown increasingly and necessarily cumbersome.  More than a 1000 of the 7000 federal appointments require Senate confirmation.  If you have to beat a filibuster for every nomination you’re not going to have a functional government.  Unless that’s what you’re aiming for.

One of the problems in modern politics is the idea it’s my rule or no ones.  The GOP wants to advance its agenda.  There’s nothing wrong with that.   It certainly disagrees with the role of government and policy that needs to be implemented.  There’s nothing wrong with that either.  In fact, those are healthy things in a democracy.  But modern politics that the GOP do everything that can be done to obstruct the majority.  McConnell famously said that the GOP’s goal was to ensure that Obama had a one term presidency.  The filibuster far from being an important tool to ensure that the minority has the right to be heard is now used to cut off debate and postpone a vote indefinitely.  It’s become one of the most anti-democratic movements in recent government history.  But there is no freedom that once abused will not be taken away.

To my knowledge the filibuster has been killed only in the sense that appointments now go to the senate for an immediate yes or no vote.  If and when the GOP retakes the senate they’ll have the opportunity reinstate the filibuster.  But they won’t.  They would never willingly give power to a minority group.  It was recently pointed out that in the DailyKos that if they really loved the filibuster that much they could institute one in the house easily.   The only reason that the DEMs have waited as long as they have is because they know that the wheel will inevitably turn and they’ll need the filibuster when it does.  But it’s time for the Filibuster to go.  We have more than enough avenues to promote speech in this country we will not miss an archaic one.  Every bill is posted online for the public to view.  The cable news programs run 24/7/365 there are countless blogs, writers, and columnists (like me!) who bloviate on such issues.  Not to mention twitter, facebook, and the like so no, the right of free speech has not been appreciably weakened by this.  The filibuster still exists for some top presidential appointments, Supreme Court Justices, and regular procedural bills.


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