December 11, 2010

Bernie Sanders Has Marathon Filibuster Of Obama-GOP Tax Scheme

As part of the progressive revolt against the $1 Trillion Obama-GOP tax scheme that heavily favors the rich, and a Clintonian Backflip for Obama, Bernie Sanders has just completed the longest filibuster in 27 years on the US Senate floor.

Sanders, an Independent from Vermont took the floor at 10:25 and spoke almost nonstop for 8.5 hours, finally restoring control to the speaker at 7:00 pm. Never leaving the floor for so much as a bathroom break, he was aided by 2 colleagues, progressive champion Sherrod Brown (D-OH) who gave a rousing speech for 3/4 of an hour and center-right Democrat Mary Landrieu (D-LA) for 1/2 of an hour.

Historical Filibusters

The traditional notion of a filibuster in the United States is based on the archaic notion that one must take control of the floor and continually speak for as long as they are physically able. For those who remember ancient history, it conjures memories of Cato speaking for hours in the Roman Senate to delays the dictatorial ambitions of Caesar, but more will likely recall the relatively recent movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

The filibuster is “a type of parliamentary procedure. Specifically, it is a form of obstruction in a legislature or other decision-making body whereby a lone member can elect to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a proposal.” Various forms of it have been used for centuries.

The Federalist Society notes that, “The traditional Senate filibuster of legislation has an ignominious history. It got its start in the 1840s when Sen. John C. Calhoun first employed a rule adopted in 1806 to defend slavery. He was called a “filibusterer,” a term taken from a Dutch word for pirates who sought to overthrow Latin American governments to hasten the spread of slavery. From 1841 to the present, the filibuster was primarily used to defend Jim Crow laws.”

In American history, when the traditional filibuster was in effect, there were some whoppers. Below are the longest:

1. Southern conservative Christian congressman were the first to abuse the filibuster in a systematic way, starting in the 1950′s in an attempt to oppose Civil Rights legislation, often under the cloak of “states-rights”. The notorious racist Strom Thurmond who started his political career as a Dixiecrat, then switched parties to Republican as the conservative base shifted, holds the record for the longest filibuster in American history at just over 24 hours to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

2. Wayne Morse (Republican, then a Democrat) filibustered the Tidelands Oil legislation in 1953 for 22.5 hours.

3. An activist Senator Huey Long (D-LA) used the filibuster with a great deal of success to stymie bills that rewarded wealthy Americans at the expense of the poor. Before his assassination in 1935 (4 years into his term), he once held the floor continuously for 15.5 hours, drifting off topic many times to include such things as Shakespeare quotes.

4. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY) spoke for 15 hours to amend a tax bill.

5. Robert Byrd took part in a 14 hour speech in a coordinated 83 day effort primarily from Dixiecrats to prevent the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from being passed.

None of these attempts at obstruction ended up successfully stopping the proposed legislation from passing, but from the moral compass of today’s standards, it becomes clear that they can used for both good and bad purposes.

Ending Obstruction by Filibuster

Despite a threat by Henry Clay to end the right of unlimited debate on the Senate floor to push through a bank bill in 1841, there was technically no stop to it until something called cloture was created in 1917 under Woodrow Wilson. Cloture of a filibuster allowed debate to be ended with a two thirds majority (67 votes).

Following abuse of the filibuster to obstruct Civil Rights legislation, cloture was revised in 1975 to allow three fifths (60 votes). After this, usage of the traditional style filibuster (which was extremely rare to begin with), severely dropped off.

The last old school filibuster before today took place in 1983.

Recent Use and Abuse

Since the 1970s, all that has been required to attempt to obstruct legislation is for one senator to announce their intention to filibuster. The Senate must then get 60 votes to vote yes on cloture to proceed. This has taken a lot of the drama out of the filibuster, but when not abused, allowed more legislation to pass unimpeded.

In the last 4 years, this has also allowed abuse to become rampant of the parliamentary procedure. According to an unnamed Republican source, Politico reports: “It used to be, the only way to stop anything was that: the all-night, all-day, hold-the-floor filibuster, whereas now, you need to produce 41. If you can get 41 senators, you can stop it.”

Wikipedia adds: “This means that as few as 41 senators, which could represent as little as 12.3% of the U.S. population, can make a filibuster happen. According to the Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Ballin (1892), changes to Senate rules could be achieved by a simple majority. Nevertheless, under current Senate rules, a rule change itself could be filibustered, and in this case votes from three fifths of Senators would be required to break the filibuster filibustering a bill to remove filibusters. Despite this written requirement, the possibility exists that the filibuster could be changed by majority vote, using the so-called nuclear option.”

As reported by myself earlier this year (March 2nd), 2010 aims to be the fourth year in a row with a record number of filibusters in the US Senate.

The most recent data by the government demonstrates my predictive figures were very close to the mark so far.

Predicted on Dec. 10th
Motions Filed 133 132
Votes on Cloture 79 84
Cloture Invoked 70 59

Because of the recent abuse of the new style of filibuster by the Republican minority that has stopped every strong reform that has come out of the US House of Representatives in the last 2 years, there have been many calls to revise Senatorial rules to require a simple majority vote to invoke cloture, thereby ending a filibuster. No actions have been taken on these proposals.

Bernie Sanders’ Marathon Filibuster

Today’s traditional style 8.5 hour filibuster by Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was the longest since 1983. Although it will not ultimately be successful in stopping a vote on the $1 trillion Obama-GOP Tax Scheme, it makes an important ideological stand in protest to giving even greater tax cuts to the rich while wealth inequity and consolidation has reached dangerous levels in recent years.

According to the LA Times, “As an attention-grabber, the effort has been successful. A live stream of the speech on Sanders’ Senate website drew 12,000 views as of Friday afternoon, crashing the page at one point. His office has been flooded by phone calls as well. “Bernie Sanders” was a trending topic nationally on Twitter as well.”

A staff member of Sanders was giving periodic updates on his Twitter feed throughout the process. By the end of the day, @senatorsanders had more than doubled his follower base from 9,8oo to 21,000.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has promised to bring the Obama-GOP Tax Scheme up for a vote next week regardless.

“It has been a very long day”

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