Tell me what you know about the filibuster

by | Jan 29, 2021 | Politics/Government

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington--photo from

One of the most famous filibusters ever delivered was in the Frank Capra classic 1939 movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s one of those movies my dad would have on TV while he “rests his eyes” in his recliner–and would make my brother and I question how someone like Jimmy Stewart became a star.

Not only does the movie tell an entertaining tale of good triumphing over evil using the filibuster as its sword, it is truly great and funny storytelling. I found it on Amazon Prime and played it while I researched a little about how filibusters work today, and I highly recommend it.

I am often surprised at how ignorant we Americans can be. No, I’m not talking about the usual cultural or “woke” stuff with which men my age have to make a true effort to keep up. It’s the old stuff, like how Congress once worked and how it does now, that would be helpful for us to know in the moment.

So, for all those with such intense feelings about it, please tell me what you really know about the filibuster. Pretty please.

Talk of eliminating “the filibuster” has returned to America, as it often does when power shifts. This time the talk isn’t limited to ivory tower, hypothetical “what if” sessions of banter among the intellectual elite over brandy and cigars. No, this discussion is happening in the streets of Democrat cities, and near the amber waves of grain of small towns, those controlled by the current minority party, formerly known as the GOP. “Regular people” arguing about procedural legislative maneuvers is entertaining for someone who is allegedly an expert on such things, like me.

Most regular people these days don’t know much about this tedious noise. It’s difficult to find the time to take a moment or two away from spouting off about what it all means to actually learn a little about it first.

If I can convince anyone to take that learning moment, here’s how I recommend it be spent:

Google the word “filibuster” in the interest of time. What you will see first is the Google definition: “Filibuster is a tactic of obstruction used in the United States Senate to prevent a measure from being brought to a vote.” Simple and clear enough for me. But did that word come from the name of some 17th Century aristocrat and political genius with a distinguished sounding name like Benedict Filibuster IV? Did this fictional character also become the childhood hero of a young Mitchie McConnell? Sadly, for this column, no it did not.

NPR did a series, “The Judicial Filibuster” way back in 2005 and they reported that, “The word filibuster goes back to a Dutch word for ‘freebooter,’ someone who took booty or loot. It came to mean a legislator who was ‘pirating’ parliamentary proceedings.” A synonym for “pirating,” is “hijacking.”

So, when your barber or your Uber driver starts their version of the discussion about it with endearing terms of the virtues connected to the filibuster, interrupt them politely and tell them to stop. It is a word and tactic that is, by definition, bad. Oh sure, in the days when politicians were both persuadable and persuasive, achieving 60 votes out the 100 possible in the United States Senate was an achievable feat. And those were good times.

In a podcast interview this week of Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, the author made a rather obvious observation that I had previously given little thought. The simple explanation of why Democrats generally oppose the existence of the filibuster, is it that they generally support legislative progress. We city folk want to combat climate change, poverty and inequality. But the actual combat is with those who want to obstruct progress, which would make them, you guessed it, conservatives. Conservatives by their very nature want to conserve things as they are, which is akin to obstructing change.

Without getting into the specifics of what is at stake today, this is the simplest way to view it. If preserving it meant bipartisanship in the U.S. Senate would return, it might have value. Of course, if it were valuable, majorities could always reestablish it, a hilarious suggestion that could be made into a new Capra-esque classic.

Quentin Tarantino could direct it. Ms. Marjorie Taylor Greene Goes to Washington would be the sequel. There’s no way it would be funny, but the shoot ‘em up scenes would be spectacular.

1 Comment

  1. Jodi graves

    Someone should do a documentary on not the changing of times, but the changing of minds.
    The liberal calling out their own like George Wallace
    The conservative supporting the liberal past.


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