Mr. President, yesterday morning I spoke here about a statement the Majority Leader issued calling the filibuster a “procedural gimmick.”
The Websters dictionary defines “gimmick” as – – “an ingenious new scheme or angle.” No Mr. President, the filibuster is not a scheme. And it is not new. The filibuster is far from a “procedural gimmick.” It is part of the fabric of this institution. It was well known in colonial legislatures, and it is an integral part of our country’s 217 years of history.
The first filibuster in the U.S. Congress happened in 1790. It was used by lawmakers from Virginia and South Carolina who were trying to prevent Philadelphia from hosting the first Congress.
Since 1790, the filibuster has been employed hundreds and hundreds of times. Senators have used it to stand up to popular presidents. To block legislation. And yes – even to stall executive nominees.
The roots of the filibuster can be found in the Constitution and in the Senate rules.
In establishing each House of Congress, Article I Section 5 of the Constitution states that “Each House may determine the rules.”
In crafting the rules of the Senate, Senators established the right to extended debate – and they formalized it with Rule XXII almost 100 years ago. This rule codified the practice that Senators could debate extensively.
Under Rule XXII, debate may be cut off under limited circumstances.
- 67 votes to end a filibuster of a motion to amend a Senate rule
- 60 votes to end a filibuster against any other legislative business.
A conversation between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington describes the United States Senate and our Founders Fathers vision of it.
Jefferson asked Washington what is the purpose of the Senate?
Washington responded with a question of his own, “Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?” “To cool it,” Jefferson replied. To which Washington said; “Even so, we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”
And this is exactly what the filibuster does. It encourages moderation and consensus. It gives voice to the minority, so that cooler heads may prevail.
It also separates us from the House of Representatives – where the majority rules. And it is very much in keeping with the spirit of the government established by the Framers of our Constitution: Limited Government…Separation of Powers…Checks and Balances.
Mr. President, the filibuster is a critical tool in keeping the majority in check. This central fact has been acknowledged and even praised by Senators from both parties.
In fact, my colleague from Georgia – Senator Isakson – recently shared a conversation he had with an official from the Iraqi government. The Senator had asked this official if he was worried that the majority in Iraq would overrun the minority. But the official replied… “no….we have the secret weapon called the ‘filibuster.’”
In recalling that conversation, Senator Isakson remarked: “If there were ever a reason for optimism… it is one of [the Iraqi] minority leaders, proudly stating one of the pillars and principles of our government, as the way they would ensure that the majority never overran the minority.”
And he was right. I spoke yesterday about Senator Holt and his 1939 filibuster to protect workers’ wages and hours. There are also recent examples of the filibuster achieving good.
In 1985, Senators from rural states used the filibuster to force Congress to address a major crisis in which thousands of farmers were on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1995, the filibuster was used by Senators to protect the rights of workers to a fair wage and a safe workplace.
Now Mr. President, I will not stand here and say the filibuster has always been used for positive purposes. Just as it has been used to bring about social change, it was also used to stall progress that this country needed to make. It is often shown that the filibuster was used against Civil Right legislation. But Civil Rights legislation passed – – Civil Rights advocates met the burden.
And it is noteworthy that today the Congressional Black Caucus is opposed to the Nuclear Option. For further analysis, let’s look at Robert Caro, a noted historian and Pulitzer Prize winner.
At a meeting I attended with other Senators, he spoke about the history of the filibuster. He made a point about its legacy that was important. He noted that when legislation is supported by the majority of Americans, it eventually overcomes a filibuster’s delay – as public protest far outweighs any Senator’s appetite to filibuster.
But when legislation only has the support of the minority, the filibuster slows the legislation …prevents a Senator from ramming it through…and gives the American people enough time join the opposition.
Mr. President, the right to extended debate is never more important than when one party controls Congress and the White House. In these cases, the filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government.
Right now, the only check on President Bush is the Democrats ability to voice their concern in the Senate. If Republicans rollback our rights in this Chamber, there will be no check on their power. The radical, right wing will be free to pursue any agenda they want. And not just on judges. Their power will be unchecked on Supreme Court nominees…the President’s nominees in general…and legislation like Social Security privatization.
Of course the President would like the power to name anyone he wants to lifetime seats on the Supreme Court and other federal courts. And that is why the White House has been aggressively lobbying Senate Republicans to change Senate rules in a way that would hand dangerous new powers to the President over two separate branches – the Congress and the Judiciary.
Unfortunately, this is part of a disturbing pattern of behavior by this White House and Republicans in Washington. From Dick Cheney’s fight to slam the doors of the White House on the American people…
To the President’s refusal to cooperate with the 9-11 Commission… To Senate Republicans attempt to destroy the last check in Washington on Republican power…To the House Majority’s quest to silence the minority in the House…
Republicans have sought to destroy the balance of power in our government by grabbing power for the presidency, silencing the minority and weakening our democracy.
America does not work the way the radical right-wing dictates to President Bush and the Republican Senate Leaders. And Mr. President, that is not how the United States Senate works either.
For 200 years, we’ve had the right to extended debate. It’s not some “procedural gimmick.” It’s within the vision of the Founding Fathers of our country. They established a government so that no one person – and no single party – could have total control.
Some in this Chamber want to throw out 217 years of Senate history in the quest for absolute power.
They want to do away with Mr. Smith coming to Washington. They want to do away with the filibuster. They think they are wiser than our Founding Fathers.
I doubt that’s true.