Busting the Filibuster

In a scene from the 1930s film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Jimmy Stewart, who plays Jefferson Smith, tells his fellow senators on the chamber floor: "I've got a few things I want to say to this body. I tried to say them once before and I got stopped colder than a mackerel. Well, I'd like to get them said this time, sir. And as a matter of fact, I'm not gonna leave this body until I do get them said."

Democratic senators Monday plan to echo those filibustering words for the next two years as a way to block many Republican bills. Lacking a majority in either the 100-member Senate or 435-seat House by only a few seats, they will rely on an old Senate protocol - not found in the Constitution - that requires 60 votes to end a Senate filibuster.

The mere threat of a filibuster these days often forces a compromise or a retreat. Yet word in Washington is that the Bush administration plans to get around this Democratic threat by using the 1974 Budget Act. Under that law, only a simple majority of 51 votes is needed to pass budget items.

The GOP is talking about attaching several measures, such as the president's $674 billion economic package, to one of many budget bills. It's not altogether uncommon for either party to use this parliamentary tactic. Republicans managed to do it under President Reagan in 1981. President Clinton tried in 1993, and failed.

But it raises a broader question about whether society should allow the majority to always prevail. Is the 60-vote protocol a safeguard for both parties when they are in the minority by allowing them to block particularly onerous or distasteful measures?

Most Democrats find the Bush economic plan to be unfair in its tax cuts for low-income people. They question his economic logic that it will encourage enough wealth to reduce the federal deficit. Are those reasons enough to deny Bush a measure that Republicans say reflects the will of voters in last November's elections?

One excuse often given for the 60-vote rule is that the Senate itself doesn't directly mirror the American people. It reflects states, which have vastly different populations. The Founding Fathers preferred this system to balance federal against state power. The filibuster may have been created to adjust this power balance.

The protocol also forces the majority at least to debate its measures rigorously in public and search for compromises that might lead to consensus with the minority. The Constitution has many checks on haste and extremes in power.

But in this era of TV, powerful special-interest lobbies, and large campaign donations, filibusters are also used merely to grandstand before the cameras, with no hope of actually blocking a measure. They've become a tool to win support for reelection or raise money. They've lost much of their original purpose as a protection from a majority that goes too far.

Since much of the work in Congress is related to the budget, from spending money to setting tax rates, the Republicans are technically correct to use the 1974 act to avoid a filibuster on the Bush economic plan or similar measures in the future.

But now's a good time for the Senate to review this ancient rule, rather than let it be abused. If the Constitution is flawed in not having this 60-vote rule, perhaps the Senate can debate whether the Constitution should be amended.

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