AN INSIDE LOOK - Commentary and opinions on local politics and life in general in Southeastern Massachusetts! Featuring the writings of Bill Gouveia, newspaper columnist for the Sun Chronicle and local cable TV talk show host. Feel free to read, comment and enjoy!
Friday, April 26, 2013
Filibuster Used Locally Would be Just a Bust
This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, April 26, 2013
AN INSIDE LOOK
By Bill Gouveia
Overshadowed by the tragic events in
Boston last week was the US Senate making an important decision on the
immediate future of new gun control laws in America.The bill seeking to establish background
checks on all gun purchases was defeated by a vote of 54-46.
that you say?No, that’s not a
mistake.There were 54 senators voting
in favor, and 46 senators opposed.And
yes, the bill required only a simple majority to pass.But under the convoluted and somehow
time-honored rules of the US Senate, it was declared defeated.
reason is that peculiar institution and political tactic known as the
filibuster.It is the rule allowing
senators to hold the floor indefinitely and block votes on bills that would probably
otherwise pass.It can only be ended by
a vote of at least 60 senators to invoke cloture, thus ending the process and
proceeding to a decision.Forever
glorified by Jimmy Stewart in the classic movie “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”,
it had long been considered a noble weapon to be used sparingly.
in today’s political environment, the filibuster threat looms over every battle.It is one of the many reasons why Washington
can’t accomplish much.The filibuster
has been adopted and abused by both political parties to the point where if it
were a child, it would have been removed from the home by now.
filibuster puts the minority party in control of what passes the Senate.They can accomplish little on their own, but
can steadfastly make sure the majority shares in their frustration and is
unable to govern effectively.After all,
isn’t that what it’s all about these days?
try and imagine for a moment how your local government meetings would work if
they contained a filibuster provision.In particular, consider how your local Open Town Meeting – the legislative
branch of town government - would be effected by this rule which some consider
a true symbol of the American form of democracy..
are about to take a simple majority vote on the local budget after (hopefully)
a good discussion.But the head of a
local neighborhood group, angry because the playground near his home is not receiving
new equipment, begins to speak.
announces he is going to filibuster, and starts to talk incessantly about
absolutely nothing.Confused residents
initially think they are at a selectmen’s meeting, then realize this is just a
tactic to stop a vote from being taken and the majority from ruling.
participant manages to make a motion to end debate.When the vote is taken, 89 citizens want to
move on and 61 back the playground advocate.Although a clear majority wishes to proceed, this is less than 60
percent so the minority prevails and the meeting continues to go nowhere.Eventually, the budget is put off to another
day, and perhaps a one-month contingency budget is approved.
course, this doesn’t happen locally.That’s because despite our own unique institutions and rules, we recognize
the need to actually make decisions.And
since our town meeting members are volunteers and have other things to do, they
place a value on their time as well as on the citizens they serve.
if such a scenario were to happen, the Town Moderator (such noble creatures)
would immediately take control and ask the filibusterer to please find a
seat.Then he or she would refocus the
discussion and help the meeting proceed to a vote.
the end of that process, the majority position prevails.The citizens then all peaceably depart,
perhaps after casting a spirited word or two in each other’s direction.Democracy has worked, the people have spoken,
and everyone goes home and complains about how long it all took.
Meetings do have articles that require a two-thirds vote, but very few.We would not put up with allowing the
minority to constantly and consistently prevent local government from operating,
and we should not put up with it on the national level either.Maybe what the US Senate needs is a
I doubt that would work.All the ones I
know are far too smart to ever take the job.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and
the Norton Town Moderator.He can be
emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at