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

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.

            What’s 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.

            The 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.

            But 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.

            The 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?

            Just 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..

            You 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.

            He 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.

            Another 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.

            Of 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.

            So 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.

            At 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.

            Town 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 moderator?

            But 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 and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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