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Sen. Joni Ernst supports the filibuster as a positive force for keeping bad legislation from becoming law. When President Joe Biden was in the Senate, he took a similar position. He said, “Despite the short-term pain, that understanding has served both parties well, and provided long-term gain.”
As president, faced with the potential blocking of his programs and appointees, Biden’s tune has changed and some of us cheered. Ernst is wrong and past Biden was as well. The filibuster ought to go. It blocks good legislation as well as bad, probably more often and at great loss to a good society.
The word “filibuster” comes from the Dutch language and its word for “pirate.” In our Congress, it means unlimited debate preventing a vote on final passage, a piracy of time, action and decision. Filibustering senators don’t come by ship, but by a short subway ride through a dry tunnel from the Senate Office Building (SOB, if you like). Unlike pirates, they do not wear colorful sashes and ostentatious jewelry. Despite looking different, there are unfortunate similarities.
They are both thieves. A filibustering senator steals time from serious debate and aims to prevent a vote on the matter at hand. They block, not amend or decide. It is democracy in inaction. Minority rules.
The filibuster was not part of Senate procedure until 1917 when “cloture,” French for ending something, became a rule of the Senate. It began with the requirement that two-thirds of the Senate vote to cut off debate, and more recently was reduced to three-fifths, from 67 to 60 “aye” votes for cloture.
The classic example of the filibuster at work came in 1964 when the historic civil rights bill was debated and ultimately passed. (I watched it up close as a member of a senator’s staff.) Senate Rule 22, the cloture rule, then required 67 senators voting to end debate and there were only 55 votes to do so as the debate began. The talking went on for 60 days and nights, while our hopes for a vote on the substance of the bill seemed doomed and beyond reach. Our goal of ending the filibuster and getting an up-or-down vote depended on bleary-eyed senators in wrinkled suits, wobbling from the couches they slept uncomfortably in a cloakroom or in their offices.
When a quorum call was made, the pro forces needed 51 votes on a moment’s notice. If you didn’t get 51, there would be a move to adjourn. (The filibusters needed no more than a couple. The rest of them slept comfortably at home. No quorum meant adjournment and starting over the next day essentially starting over again and, thus, preventing a vote.) In earlier filibusters, senators, at a loss for words, read phone books and family recipes.
The filibuster is not a Dutch treat, but an abuse by a minority of senators in thwarting majority will. It was an abuse when Sen. Biden was for it and it still is an abuse now that he is for its abolition and Sen. Ernst is not.
Norman Sherman of Coralville has worked extensively in politics, including as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary, and authored a memoir “From Nowhere to Somewhere.”