Thursday, March 31, 2005
Real-life filibusters are another matter, however. They can be used for good or evil. In fact, segregationist Southern senators used filibusters to preserve the poll tax and block civil rights and anti-lynching legislation for generations. Among the real-life practitioners were the late Senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi.
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In reality, the filibuster is simply and by definition the use of obstructionist tactics to delay legislative action. The legislation being blocked can be good, bad, or indifferent, depending on one's point of view. The historical reality is that the filibuster was the means by which the segregationist South blocked federal civil rights legislation for many decades after a majority favored it.

One practitioner was Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, an avowed white supremacist. The real-life Sen. Bilbo was quite a contrast with the fictional Sen. Smith. In 1947, a few years after the movie, Sen. Bilbo found himself facing real charges of pocketing money intended for his campaign and intimidating black voters during his re-election campaign of the previous year. Bilbo wasn't sworn in, even though Southern colleagues launched a filibuster that threatened to paralyze the Senate until he was allowed to take his seat. Bilbo went back to Mississippi and died of cancer before the matter could be resolved.

Jefferson Smith's fictional 23-hour filibuster was actually eclipsed many years later in real life, when Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes – still the Senate record for a one-man filibuster. He finished the morning of Aug. 29, 1957. Thurmond, who was then a Democrat, was staging an attempt to block a weak civil-rights bill that even some other Southerners favored.

Filibusters continued to block serious civil rights legislation right up until 1964, when the Senate was finally able to muster the two-thirds majority that was then required to end debate. The last to filibuster against the landmark 1964 legislation was Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who spoke for 14 hours and 13 minutes, finishing the morning of June 10 – the 57th day of debate on the measure.

It is one of the ironies of US politics that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which lobbied so long for the 1964 civil rights bill, is currently lobbying to save the filibuster. In a recent "action alert," the NAACP said that eliminating the filibuster would allow "right-wing extremists to be confirmed to lifetime appointments on the federal bench."

Misstating the Issue

The PFAW ad also misstates the issue. It features firefighter Ted Nonini saying that the movie Senator Smith was using the filibuster "so that the other point of view could be heard" and adding, "I also know that our democracy works best when both parties are speaking out and being heard." In fact, eliminating the filibuster would still allow all senators ample opportunity to speak and be heard. What's actually at stake is whether a minority of 40 senators will continue to have the power to block legislation favored by a majority -- particularly the confirmation of Bush's judicial nominees.
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I am an attorney in Chicago. Politically speaking, I am an indepedent that tends to lean conservative on fiscal issues and progressive on social issues. I try to remain as unbiased and open-minded as possible. Please email or post any comments, and especially criticisms. If something I say is wrong, or you disagree - let me know about it!

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