Dethrone 'Filibuster King' Mitch McConnell
The fight is on to fix the minority's silent domination
of the Senate.
By Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President
December 11, 2012
In These Times
This article is permanently archived at:
Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the U.S.
Senate, has for six years wielded the filibuster as a
weapon in his rebellion against a founding principle of
the United States of America: self-governance by
McConnell's revolt shows he believes Americans cannot
govern themselves because, basically, he thinks the
majority of Americans are wrongheaded. As any monarch
would, he believes the minority is justified in
overriding and ruling over the majority.
McConnell is the filibuster king, master of all that he
and his minority minions can obstruct. With the
filibuster, he zealously bludgeoned to death bills
passed by a majority in the House and supported by a
majority in the Senate. What was intended to be a
precision tool McConnell brandished as a machine gun,
murdering all majority-supported legislation in sight.
Filibuster is derived from the Dutch word for thieving
pirates. It is the minority stealing voting rights from
In the olden days, like during the time of the Clinton
administration and earlier, the filibuster was rarely
and judiciously used by both Democrat and Republican
minorities. It was hauled out of the Senate
parliamentary rules bin only when the measures under
consideration were fairly monumental.
The 1957 Civil Rights bill was such a deal. South
Carolina Senator and segregationist Strom Thurmond set
the filibuster record opposing this measure intended to
provide equal voting rights for black people. Thurmond
knew there were sufficient votes in the Senate to pass
it - that would be 51, a simple majority. But it would
take a supermajority-67 votes at that time-for the
Senate to stop debate about it, essentially to shut him
up, and anyone else who would join him, and move to a
vote on the bill itself. He was probably right in
thinking proponents of the bill could not muster 67
votes to stop him.
Thurmond failed, however, because he couldn't go on
after 24 hours of talking and no other Senator stepped
forward to continue his tirade against civil rights.
The Senate passed the bill 62-15 two hours after
Thurmond voluntarily stopped talking.
Just short of 20 years later, the Senate made it easier
to end a filibuster by cutting to 60 the number of
votes needed to end debate. But the Senate has also
made it much easier to conduct a filibuster. It no
longer compels obstructionists to do any work. All they
have to do now is call a filibuster. They don't have to
actually stand up and talk. At all. Ever. It's a silent
filibuster. It's a
And those lazy, silent filibusters have increased
dramatically under king McConnell. Republicans have
pulled 348 go-home-and-put-your-feet-up filibusters
since Democrats became the majority party in the Senate
six years ago. In just the two years of 2009 and 2010,
Republicans pulled more of these lazy, silent
filibusters than the total number of filibusters that
occurred in the two decades of the 1950s and 1960s.
Filibuster power has so gone to the head of king
McConnell that last week, he filibustered a measure
that he had proposed just hours before.
King McConnell's successful obstruction has meant that
Americans who elected Democrats as the majority party
in both the House and Senate in 2008 did not get
legislation that the majority of Americans supported
then and continue to support now. Dylan Matthews of The
Washington Post listed 17 measures that likely would
have become law except for the filibuster. Among them
were a bill that would have required corporations to
disclose their political spending, a measure to end the
Bush tax cut for the rich and repeal of special tax
deals and subsidies for oil companies.
The U.S. House of Representatives functions just fine
without a filibuster. Supposedly the Senate needs the
filibuster because it's the more deliberative body. But
king McConnell has exploited the filibuster to convert
the Senate into the do-nothing-at-all body.
Vanity Fair editor Bruce Handy offered solutions to the
filibuster problem in a column in the New York Times.
He recommended, for example, that if a Senator wants to
filibuster, he must read aloud material provided by
supporters of the measure. So, for example, Strom
Thurmond would have been required to recount incidents
of black people prevented from voting in places like
Thurmond's home state.
Among the more hilarious of Handy's suggestions is one
he calls "strip filibusters." The party requesting a
filibuster would be obliged to remove an article of
clothing each time it invokes a new filibuster. With
the rise to more than 50 filibusters a year during the
Obama administration, this rule would quickly raise a
cautionary question in Senators' minds.
Tongue-in-cheek, Hardy said they'd have to ask
Do I object to this trade bill or naval yard closing so
strenuously that I'm willing to let Al Franken see me
The genius of a "strip filibuster" rule is that it
imposes a penalty on a minority attempting to seize the
majority's mandate. A more realistic sanction would be
insisting that anyone who wants to filibuster actually
do the talking. End the silent filibuster. If the
minority wants to scuttle legislation supported by the
majority, let the minority stand before the American
public and explain why.
If, like Strom Thurmond, they can't keep the talking
marathon going, then the filibuster ends and a simple
majority vote on the measure occurs.
Senators can change the filibuster rules with a simple
majority vote on the first day of the new legislative
session. The majority must seize back control from the
minority - as the founding fathers intended. Dethrone
king McConnell; make the minority talk if they want to
Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a
sponsor of In These Times.
Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers
International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the
second Canadian to lead the union, started working at
Inco's nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18.
For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.
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