Guest column: Mr. Smith and the Senate filibuster
| January 23, 2022 8:00 AM
One of the great motion pictures of all time was the 1939 Academy Award blockbuster directed by the legendary Frank Capra called “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ The movie was based on an unpublished manuscript by Lewis R. Foster with the title “The Gentleman from Montana.”
Columbia Pictures offered the leading role to Montana actor Gary Cooper, who turned it down, so the Mr. Smith character was accepted by the young, up-and-coming actor Jimmy Stewart.
The plot is that the naïve and idealistic Jefferson Smith, a popular boys camp counselor, is appointed by his state’s governor to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. Immediately after being sworn in, Sen. Smith introduces a bill to create a national boys camp along a beautiful mountain stream. Unbeknown to Smith, his proposed camp is located on property that would be flooded by a dam planned by his state’s dominating corporation.
Smith is pressured by his state’s senior senator, Joe Payne, a tool of the company, to withdraw his bill. Smith believes the location he has selected is inspirational in its pure beauty, and therefore is the perfect setting for young boys to learn the virtues of conservation and good citizenship. When Smith refuses to abandon his camp proposal, the company uses its newspaper monopoly to blackmail and vilify Smith, and they order Payne to bring phony charges to get Smith expelled from the Senate.
Smith is advised that Senate rules permit him to speak for as long as he can remain standing. In doing so, he exposes his corrupt corporate attackers and defiantly defends the purpose of the camp, until he dramatically collapses on the Senate floor. Smith’s earnestness and truthfulness ultimately convince the other senators, including a humiliated Sen. Payne, to drop the expulsion scheme and approve the camp.
What Sen. Smith did was filibuster. He took advantage of the Senate rule that protected the free speech of any senator. Were Smith serving under Senate rules as they have evolved today, he would actually have been prevented from even being recognized. The time honored Senate free speech rule has been distorted into a gag rule, and the U.S. Senate, once recognized as the world’s “greatest deliberative body,” must now have a minimum of 60 of its hundred members willing to go along before it allows itself to debate even a Mother’s Day resolution.
In our narrowly divided country, it is very rare for either political party to win a 60-vote majority. And in our superheated political climate, senators are unwilling to break party lines and vote with the other side to create the needed 60-vote majority. So there is “gridlock,” and the angry blame game continues on and nothing continues to happen.
There are now various proposals to modify Senate rules so the body can again function, and several focus on the filibuster. On the positive side, Montana Sen. Jon Tester has stated his openness to returning to the old rule of a speaking filibuster, as done by Sen. Smith in the movie.
Other proposals would reduce the 60-vote rule to perhaps 55. Some suggest that the Senate can possibly do “carve outs,” making certain legislation exempt from the 60-vote requirement every time the need arises.
The trouble is, they are all complicated parliamentary contrivances. The Constitution specifies the matters before the Senate that require a supermajority: convicting impeached officials, overriding presidential vetoes, ratifying treaties and enacting constitutional amendments. Nowhere does it require general legislation to have a super majority before it can even be discussed, let alone acted on, as the filibuster rule now requires.
The permanent solution to the “gridlock” is for the Senate to simply follow the Constitution. All matters, unless specified by the Constitution, should simply be decided by a majority vote. That is fair and something the people understand. Our system is “by and for the people,” not by and for some arcane set of unworkable procedural rules that would have stifled “Mr. Smith,” and in the unsettled real world of today are threatening the very existence of our system of American government which cannot survive if it cannot function.
Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state and Montana Senate president.