Or: A Brief Defense of the Filibuster
As you may be aware, Harry Reid looks to be working up to kill part of the filibuster in the Senate. This is in response to the hold everything ransom tactic that the Republican Party has been employing as of late with regard to, well, almost everything. Reid has scheduled votes on seven of President Obama's executive appointments early next week, and if they are impeded through filibustering, has threatened to overrule the Parliamentarian and make a rules change that disallows the filibustering of executive appointments.
Many people are looking forward to this change. The government ought to be able to function. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and National Labor Relations Board should actually have leadership. Ditto for the EPA and Department of Labor. And that's all fantastic. But this is not the way to do it.
Republicans, chief among them Mitch McConnell, are understandably livid about these machinations. The filibuster is a legitimate tool for preventing minority opinions from being shut out by the majority. The Senate has a duty to be obstinate and slow the executive branch down. These things are in general true and in line with the Constitutional underpinnings of the legislature (though the filibuster itself has no Constitutional basis).
The problem in all this is that it has gradually become impossible for anything that is not utterly irrelevant or an issue of dire consequences to pass through the Senate. This is in large part due to the rise of the silent filibuster. The modern obstructionist tool allows a minority to indefinitely delay legislation without the commonsense requirement that they stand up and yammer on about it. Not only does this stop any controversial legislation in its tracks, it deprives the public of the opportunity to actually hear from this offended minority.
And that was really what a filibuster was about. Talking filibusters are rarely successful, in the typical usage of the word. Rand Paul and Wendy Davis weren't able to actually stop the motions they were protesting. Strom Thurmond, the legend of the filibuster himself, received applause after setting the record. The Senators then voted the Civil Rights Act straight on through once they finished clapping.
Filibusters aren't about the obstruction so much as forcing the majority, and the public, to acknowledge your opposition. This silent filibuster business doesn't do that. The only recent time that such a move got some press coverage was when Senator McConnell filibustered himself, and that was mostly for the schadenfreude. Contrast this to how everybody was talking about Wendy Davis (who is now being suggested as a gubernatorial candidate), or when Rand Paul surprised us all by doing things the right way, and actually got some coverage of the White House's disturbingly vague drone strike policies.
So really, all the Senate needs to be useful again is more rambling speeches. It's that simple.