Saturday, January 23, 2010

Mr. Brown Goes to Washington

A naive young man is appointed to fill the unexpired term of a U.S. Senator by a corrupt Governor because party leaders think he will be easy to manage to their liking.  The young man goes to Washington where he quickly learns that what is best for the country isn't always best for the Senate, and his efforts to pass a bill to help young people is met with resistance.  When he pursues this bill anyway, the state party boss resorts to a malicious and untrue scandal to undermine the young idealist.  The penultimate scene is a filibuster with an impassioned plea on the floor of the Senate to return to what's best for the country and not just cozy for the politicians.  They are swayed by the earnest young man and promise to reform.  The country is better for it thereafter.

That, in a nutshell, is a synopsis of the Oscar-winning Frank Capra 1939 film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."  James Stewart plays Smith, and Claude Rains the senior Senator with the epiphany.  It's a great movie with a fabulous screenplay and terrific acting.  It could not happen today.  Mr. Smith might go to Washington, but the Senate would never let the filibuster play out on the floor.

Why, you may ask, is this so?  And while we're at it, why does it take 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything when 51 constitutes a majority?  Both good questions, and both answered the same way.  Senate rules.

A couple of decades or so ago most of the old white men that run the Senate concluded that real filibusters (the ones where members were required to stay on the floor, and the speaker held the floor by reading cookbooks and magazines into the Congessional Record) were inconvenient to their social lives, made fundraising more difficult and kept them up past their bedtimes.  So they changed the rules for a filibuster.  Now all that is required is for a Senator to state that he or she will do so and the Senate automatically moves to cloture (the move to shut off a filibuster, 60 votes being required).  No messy late nights.  No tedious actual lawmaking.  Dinner plans are intact and lobbyist's hours are not unduly imposed upon.  Very tidy.  Also lethal to progress for the American People.

Why, you may ask, doesn't the party with the majority simply change the rules?  They have that right, indeed, the power players routinely change rules to suit them when they achieve the majority.  But not this rule.  This rule stands, and will continue to stand for one very simple reason:  The party in power will not always be so.  Therefore a gentleman's agreement was reached wherein neither party will change this particular rule for fear of retribution from other members when the inevitable fall from the grace of the voters occurs.

Like what happened in the 2008 election.  Democrats took commanding control of the Senate and the House.  Republicans in the Senate need only write the word filibuster on a slip of paper and hand it to the Clerk and now 60 votes are needed to sneeze or take a potty break.  Bear in mind, this is not what the American People or the Constitution had in mind, but the Senate has its rules.

Herein lies the irony of Mr. Smith of Mass. going to D.C.  He was elected because Democrats exhibited that most enduring party trait;  internal meltdown.  The Dems managed to present to the voters an unappealing candidate so sure of her election she barely bothered to campaign until polls showed that defeat was imminent.  My liberal friends have asked me from time to time why I won't move to the Democratic Party, and instead choose to remain Independent.  In a phrase, it's party discipline.  However wrongheaded the Republicans are at this moment--and trust me on this one, they are way off the reservation--they at least know how to maintain a coherent (if inaccurate) message.  Dems on the other hand show an unfailing ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  It's a wonder any of them can walk given how many times they have shot themselves in the foot.

So, Mr. Brown will go to Washington and will become a majority of one.  One man, one slip of paper and the wheels of government grind to a halt.  Ridiculous concessions will be made, laws will be written not for good governance, but to appease the ego of a single Senator to get that crucial vote.  It won't even be good sausage.

I think they ought to bring back the real deal.  If you want to filibuster, fine.  Bring in the cots, haul out the cookbooks and magazines and settle in for a few days of butt busting legislative work.  Talk till your voice is raw, wear a diaper so you don't have to relinquish the floor, get yourself and 99 other old men and women dead tired and wanting to go home.  Then start doing what you should be doing anyway.  Start making decent law and reasonable compromises.  Start thinking about country first and party second, or maybe third.  Ignore lobbyists for a change.  Do the right thing.

It'll never happen of course, but I can dream, can't I?

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