Filibusters Make Careers, Not Laws
Most talkathons produce empty headlines
Does the old-time filibuster really work? Well, to paraphrase President Bill Clinton’s famously elliptical defense of his personal life, it all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘work’ is.
If the objective is to make a point or a reputation, then standing your ground in the well of the Senate for hours on end has been effective.
But if the purpose is to make a new law, stop enactment of a law or steer policy deliberations, then single-minded bouts of bladder-busting speechifying have not worked well.
By the latter standard, the monologue marathon that Democrat Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut engineered last week was much more the exception than the rule. Holding the Senate floor — albeit with rhetorical assistance from three-dozen of his colleagues — for 14 hours and 50 minutes allowed him to score a tangible, if probably ephemeral, victory . Gun control legislation, which was nowhere at all on the congressional agenda, got pushed overnight to the head of the line.
Just eight days after the worst mass shooting in American history, senators will vote Monday on four different measures — one from each party to restrict potential terrorists’ access to firearms, and one from each party to expand background checks for would-be weapons buyers. Not one of these is likely to get the 60 votes required to overcome a (purely theoretical) filibuster by opponents.
And if one of the proposals does somehow advance, or more talks eventually yield a genuinely bipartisan approach, it defies history to expect an accord with a House dominated by gun rights conservatives.
Even if the situation ends in a predictable stalemate, however, the Murphy filibuster will nonetheless stand out as a rare instance when a minority of senators used the Capitol’s most legendary parliamentary maneuver to compel the majority to alter its itinerary and do something it did not want to do.
Senators will go on record several times this election year as “yes” or “no” on gun control. That’s what Murphy said he was after. So, from his stated point of view, the filibuster did work. (His own national profile has surely gone up a notch as well.)
What Murphy orchestrated was an unusual exemplar of the most melodramatic form of dilatory behavior, which got a place in pop culture thanks to Jimmy Stewart’s climatic oration in the 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
In what’s now called a “talking filibuster,” a senator is recognized and, while potentially sharing the speech-making with others, refuses to sit down and thereby yield the floor until his continence, appetite, orthopedic stamina or emotional wherewithal get the better of him — or he gets what he wants.
Yes, since the Senate started keeping precise records in 1900, every one of the 15 longest such productions (those lasting more than 8 hours and 30 minutes) has been staged by a man. And only once, 101 years ago, were the theatrics credited with such a clear-cut legislative win as Murphy’s, which now ranks No. 9 on the duration roster.
After Republican Reed Smoot of Utah spoke for 11 hours and 35 minutes against a bill to boost spending on ship purchases, amazingly without ever deviating from that pretty dry subject, support started collapsing and the measure was scuttled days later.
Much more common is the tilting-at-windmills soliloquy that proves to be a public relations windfall for the rhetorical warrior without altering the dynamics of the debate.
The longest speech in Senate history, which lasted 18 minutes beyond a full day in August 1957, was delivered by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in a doomed effort to derail enactment of the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.
The bill became law two weeks later. And that performance by Thurmond, a Democrat who later became a Republican, was forever linked as much to his slowly-evolving segregationist views as to his legendary energy and fitness, which allowed him to retire from the Senate after his 100th birthday in 2002.
Republican Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York holds the second and eighth spots, for parochial and sometimes comic stem-winders with a combined length just under 39 hours.
Neither last stand paid off with changes in policy: The Air Force stopped buying the training airplane built on Long Island he’d hoped to save in 1986, and 850 constituents lost their jobs at an upstate typewriter factory without the tax break he went after in 1992. But both crusades paid off for him: Each was delivered within weeks of his standing — successfully, and narrowly — for re-election.
Despite his 21-hour, 18-minute diatribe against Obamacare (and in favor of “Green Eggs and Ham”) in September 2013, Ted Cruz of Texas never got close to persuading the Senate to join the House in voting to shut down the government unless the health care law got squashed. But the effort became the center of an outsider-on-the-inside narrative that propelled him to second place in this year’s Republican presidential race .
Similarly, Rand Paul of Kentucky was not able to alter national security policy one whit with either his 2013 talkathon against military drones or last year’s evisceration of domestic surveillance practices. But it’s tough to imagine his libertarian campaign for the GOP nomination getting as far as it did without the headlines generated from those combined 23 hours and 23 minutes on the floor.
Similarly, no one expected Vermont’s Bernie Sanders to single-handedly stop a bipartisan tax-cut package in December 2010, but the populist bombast he rehearsed for 8 hours and 37 minutes that day served as an early road test of the themes that have propelled his remarkably sustained run for the Democratic nomination.
Similar tales — about reputations built on feats of public speaking fortitude that yielded no quantifiable triumph — dot the story of the modern Senate. Few remember how, shortly before he was assassinated in 1935, Louisiana Democrat Huey P. Long tried to stop a New Deal measure he viewed as favoring industry over the poor.
But almost every textbook entry about the filibuster recalls fondly how Long spent much of his 15 hours and 30 minutes reciting Shakespeare, describing his favorite corn bread recipes and detailing the preferred uses for “potlikker,” the liquid generated by cooking collard greens.