Talking about the filibuster

And with that, Frank Capra’s cinematic hero launched the filibuster that saved the Boy Rangers’ summer camp for the good guys by turning a little-used parliamentary procedure into a weapon to defeat cynicism, corruption and greed.

In real life, it’s the United States Senate that needs a good talking-to about its steady descent into gridlock that has all but ended free, full debate on Capitol Hill. The filibuster has become the tactic of choice, in recent years, to sidetrack substantive legislation and appointments to executive-branch jobs and the bench. And, not to get too dramatic about it, Sen. Jeff Merkley, the freshman Democrat from Oregon, may be one of the senators who can help push along reforms to prevent the Senate sinking further into dysfunction.

The idea of the filibuster, of course, was to protect senators in the minority from the tyranny of the majority by allowing one of them to take the floor and talk until, under present rules, a three-fifths majority could be assembled to invoke cloture — the polite word for telling them to shut up, drop the matter and let the Senate get on with its business.

A single senator (or a small group of them) could thus derail legislation. This happened rarely until recent years, when the combination of partisanship and lack of accountability led to a sharp increase in the practice. In the current session of Congress, for example, 125 cloture motions have been filed. Many more items — federal appointments for example — have simply languished without action because of likely filibusters.

As a practical matter, senators no longer have to talk to the point of collapse, as Jimmy Stewart did in the 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” although Sen. J. Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Usually these days, a senator or his designated party leader can just file a motion and, barring a rare partisan defection, that will be that.

Merkley and others — notably Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska — think it’s time for some of the drama to come back to the Senate floor. If a senator wants to delay the chamber’s business, they suggest, then the filibuster ought to be literal, with the senator and perhaps some allies required to keep talking as time passes.

As Merkley points out, the public already believes that a filibuster is a courageous act of principle requiring an actual physical presence on the Senate floor. Maybe that ought to be the truth.