Busting the Filibuster

Local citizens group targets Washington gridlock

Keywords: Poll question,

In the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," James Stewart's character memorably talks himself into exhaustion on the Senate floor to stall an appropriations bill and prove his innocence. After speaking nonstop for 24 hours, he finally succumbs to fatigue and collapses in a heap.

The iconic scene is probably how most people think of the filibuster. But the present process is far less theatrical and physically draining. In fact, it demands no exertion at all.

Senators can now invoke filibusters at whim - no rambling speeches or phone book reading necessary. As long as 40 senators oppose a bill, and one of them declares an intent to filibuster, the majority must scrounge up 60 votes - a supermajority - to break it. The intent is to bring legislation to a screeching halt.

The tactic has done Congress no favors with the American public.

Reckless use of the filibuster from 2007 onward has contributed to dismal approval ratings, which, according to the Gallup pollsters, have averaged 17 percent since Jan. 2010, at times plummeting to 10 percent - a number even lower than telemarketers and TSA airport screenings.

A recently formed group of local citizens are adding their voices to the chorus demanding reform.

"It's simple. Bills should be put up for a vote, whether the tally is a yes or a no," said Laird Carlson, de facto spokesman of Montezuma Voters for Good Government.

Carlson calls himself a "coordinator of information", and rejects titles like director or president. He says MVGG was intentionally created without any formal leadership hierarchy.

"We're a group of equals who discuss specific policy issues that affect us in Montezuma County, and propose ideas to solve them. But we don't just sit around a table and talk. We want to be a force that contacts our representatives and prompts them to act."

The small founding core first convened MVGG shortly after the November election, because as Carlson puts it, civic responsibility goes beyond the voting booth. A successful democracy is about staying informed and making sure lawmakers are responsive to their constituents.

"It's more than casting a ballot on November 6 and letting (politicians) do their thing. We're tired of that," he said. "They represent us."

The group chose filibuster reform as its first battle because Senate procedural rules can only be changed on the first day of a new session. In this case, Jan. 3.

For the last month, Carlson and others have kept busy informing Montezuma County voters about what they perceive as filibuster misuse. Action-wise, they want people to sign the national online petition, accessible via the group's Facebook page, and to contact Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet. Both senators have issued statements backing reform.

Udall has his own website petition and has proposed to eliminate "frivolous absentee obstruction" by forcing senators to be present to commence a filibuster. He believes the procedural tool has been distorted beyond its rightful purpose of protecting minority party rights.

"In recent years, the minority party has broken all past precedent and has used the filibuster on a regular basis to stop common-sense bills and nominations from receiving up-or-down votes," he wrote in a blog post.

While vocal advocates of filibuster reform in Washington are Democrats, Carlson says MVGG is nonpartisan. He believes a more functional Congress is something engaged citizens from across the political spectrum can agree upon.

"Right now to pass anything substantial you need over 60 votes. Our country wasn't set up to run on a supermajority. Majority should rule. That's what's written in the Constitution," he said.

Another related grievance of MVGG is the "silent hold," where a single Senator can anonymously delay appointments to key administrative and judicial posts.

For Carlson and his ilk, it comes down to quality of representation.

"Everyone is frustrated by the stagnation. We're paying big bucks for this government to run. We want it to run efficiently," he said.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com