Voting rights expansion vs. the filibuster

James Stewart filibusters as Mr. Smith. (Real filibusters are much less noble and don’t require speeches.)

We were watching the filibuster scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a hit movie in 1939 and a great example of director Frank Capra using his corny genius to convey big, inspirational ideas. His hero in this one is James Stewart playing a rookie senator who makes a marathon speech against corruption and then collapses in a heap on the Senate floor. Truth and the American way prevail despite this setback.

Swamp Rabbit looked puzzled. “If the filibuster is so great, how come Bernie and them other Democrats are trying to get rid of it?”

I explained to him that the filibuster, although it looks noble in the Capra movie, has rarely been used to accomplish anything good in the modern-era U.S. Senate. The rules allowing for its use are byzantine. Let’s just say that, thanks to those rules, most bills require 60 votes to pass (three-fifths of the Senate) instead of a simple 51-vote majority.

I told Swamp Rabbit that the filibuster was a favorite tool of segregationists trying to stop passage of civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960.

He looked even more puzzled. “Is that what Jimmy Stewart was doing? Trying to stop black peeps from getting their civil rights?“

“No,“ I said. “His filibuster was to stop a shady appropriations bill backed by a corrupt senator played by Claude Rains,“ I said. “Rains, you see, was trying to use Mr. Smith to — never mind. You’d better just watch the whole movie.“

But Swamp Rabbit was on to something. Democrats in the House recently endorsed a voting-rights bill called the For the People Act (House Resolution 1). Republicans want to prevent the bill from passing in the Senate (of course) but they can’t do this unless the filibuster rules stay in place. The ball is in the Democrats’ court. They won’t be able to pass any progressive legislation unless they use their slim 51-vote majority to kill the filibuster. As recently noted in the progressive publication Jacobin:

[The Democrats’] hemming and hawing over the filibuster is needlessly stalling the implementation of huge swaths of their agenda during what could be the only, brief opportunity they have during Biden’s presidency to put their platform into law. Their majority is so razor-thin, after all, that it could end at literally any moment.

The headline on the Jacobin article put it this way: “If the Democrats Don’t Kill the Filibuster, They’re Screwed.”

James Stewart couldn’t have said it any better.

Footnote: Democrats can’t use the reconciliation procedure to pass the For the People Act with their slim majority because the bill isn’t budget-related.

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