Filibuster Shows Process Has Consequences

Filibuster in Washington is an old show

Many know what the filibuster is because of Jimmy Stewart’s role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s an engaging and inspiring piece of drama fit for the ages – and particularly for our current times.

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Filibuster support depends on which side you’re on

All eyes are on Washington, or so it seems. As the Senate wrestles with the filibuster question. David Leonhardt, writing for The New York Times, discusses The Filibuster Fight. He informs us:

Consider the words “conservative” and “progressive.” A conservative tends to prefer the status quo, while a progressive often favors change.

Leonhardt quotes Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch:

The filibuster is a tool to preserve the status quo and makes it harder to make change.

Leonhardt further informs us:

Jamelle Bouie, a Times Opinion columnist, has made cases for scrapping the filibuster. In “The Washington Post,” Carl Levin, a former senator, and Richard Arenberg have made the case for keeping it. And Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution has described how it might be reformed.

Filibuster myths

We may think we know what the filibuster is, but it is often confusing. Ezra Kline, writing for Vox in 2015, pointed out 7 myths about the filibuster. The seven myths he addresses are as follows, accompanied with summations:

  1. The filibuster requires senators to talk.

[The continuous talking] kind of filibuster is dead. Today’s filibusters are completely different — they have nothing to do with talking, and everything to do with voting.

  1. There are about as many filibusters now as in the past.

The story told by cloture motions is striking: between 1917 and 1970, senators filed fewer than 60 motions to break a filibuster. Between 2009 and 2015 alone, they filed more than 500.

  1. The only reason to filibuster a bill is to kill it.

Constant filibusters serve a purpose for the minority even if the majority has the 60 votes necessary to break them: they waste time. The key here is that a single bill can be filibustered at many different points in the process.

  1. All legislation can be filibustered.

Bills are exempt from the filibuster if they go through a process called budget reconciliation, which is designed to make it easier for the House and Senate to bring their budget proposals into alignment (hence “reconciliation”). … Reconciliation … forces legislators to use policies that may not be the best way to achieve their goals. But as the filibuster has become more common, reconciliation has become more attractive to congressional majorities that have 51 votes in the Senate, but not 60.

  1. The Founding Fathers created the filibuster.

[T]he filibuster was created by accident. When the Senate cleaned out its rulebook in the early 1800s, they removed the rule that stops a senator from talking — and it wasn’t until much later than anyone realized they had accidentally created the filibuster.

  1. The Senate never changes the filibuster.

[U]sing a process called cloture, a two-thirds majority of the Senate could shut down a filibuster. A notable pattern around changes to the filibuster is they’re a one-way ratchet: the filibuster will be weakened, typically over the protests of the minority, but when that minority retakes power, they do not restore the filibuster to its former strength.

  1. Eliminating the filibuster altogether would require 67 votes.

Though a filibuster can only be broken with 60 votes, the rule that powers the filibuster can be changed, or even eliminated, with 51 votes. The filibuster is a minority protection that exists at the pleasure of the majority.

Good governance requires good process

The point of all of this is that good governance is not just about results. It’s not just about getting things done or winning everything all the time. Another truth is discussed in All Votes Matter! In its Introduction, the book states:

Process is as important as results.

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Often, people speak of how the, “ends justify the means.” It’s a silly notion because, truth be told, the “ends” can also condemn the means. Or, the end results may be judged along a spectrum between the two polarizations.

Process matters!

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) idea skips past the process, reaching for a desired result: winning the nation’s popular vote gives the presidential candidate the presidency. But the process is ignored. The desired results can easily backfire!

What’s the harm? Consider the comparison of a patient telling the doctor of a fever and the doctor recommends a cold shower. The patient may be dying of COVID but the doctor skips the diagnostics (part of the process) and reaches for a desired result. The fever may abate – for a while. The patient could also die. Which of the two ends (abated fever or dying) would justify the means?

Good governance in our democracy means all voices get to be heard. It also means that minority voices matter. They are heard and they matter because our democratic process allows – requires – them to be.

Equal Voice Voting (EVV) incorporates a more inclusive process for electing a president than what NPVIC can offer. Further it honors the U.S. Constitution, the electoral college, the sovereignty of states, and the sacredness of a voter’s ballot.

The filibuster may not go away and its use, or lack thereof, may frustrate those of us who pay attention. Yet, it’s part of a process that has endured a lot of debate and served to slow things down. It stings and benefits. Is it needed? Is it wanted? The debate continues and brings attention to good governing process.

Click here to view the EVV videos.

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By Jerry Spriggs and the Equal Voice Voting Team

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