Sunday, December 20, 2009

C-CSPAN and the Law of Unintended Consequences

I admit to a sort of obsession with dominoes, how one thing leads to another. One of my domino constructions starts with C-SPAN – C-SPAN 2 to be precise – and ends with governmental paralysis.

Remember “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where Jimmy Stewart’s young Senator holds the floor for days on end until public opinion turns to his view and his filibuster saves America? The movie is pure fantasy, of course: 65 senators (back then) could have cut off debate, which means that there were at least 30 other senators who shared our hero’s view of the pending legislation. Where were they?

Anyway, the fact is that filibusters used to be conducted by real senators giving real speeches. The current practice, though, is for senators who oppose a bill to announce their intention to filibuster it and, thereby, to require sixty votes for its passage. According to Wikipedia, Senate Rule 22, which, of course, is not written in English, allows for speechless filibusters. The same Wikipedia article also says that the Senate Majority leader can order that real speeches be made. I admit that I cannot find any evidence in the rule that any of this is so. Nevertheless, the Senate makes its own rules, and the Senate can change them – though even there Wikipedia says that one Senate rule requires a 2/3 vote to change the Senate rules – a Gödelian nightmare if ever I saw one. (What if the rule said that the rules could only be changed when Hell freezes over?) Thus, if there are speechless filibusters, the Senate rules clearly countenance them, and those rules clearly could be changed to get rid of them.

Why, then, are speechless filibusters allowed? I can think of only two reasons, although I’m well aware that that’s not the same thing as saying that there only are two reasons. One of my candidates is laziness. Both parties use the filibuster when they’re in the minority. Why should they oblige themselves to actually have to blabber on? If one side makes the other actually speak, the same will happen to them when their turn comes. My second candidate, though, is the first domino in my chain: C-SPAN 2, which provides coverage of Senate floor speeches. I don’t believe that filibusters are all that attractive, and I think that if the American people got to watch enough of that particular bit of sausagery, they would not react kindly. As a result, the Senators, in order to preserve their own jobs and to preserve the filibuster, per se, have agreed that they should not actually have to carry one out.

I am sympathetic to the Senators’ plight (but only to their plight). The filibuster is an important tool whereby the tyranny of the majority can be constrained. And I’m perfectly happy that this current Senate needs 60 votes on such major things as healthcare reform. But on judicial nominations, or Pentagon appropriations? On things for which Senators would not have taken the trouble actually to filibuster, or over which they would have looked foolish while filibustering, things for which a majority in all good conscience should be enough to get done? Nah, I think Senators should be made to play the game on those bills. But, I agree, that the cost of making them play the game is too high with C-SPAN documenting every wasted minute of it.

That’s why I’m sympathetic to the Senators’ plight. But the answer, it seems to me, is quite simple. The Congressional Record records every word spoken in the Senate, and members of the Press are permitted in the gallery. So, there is no fear that the Senate will become a secret society if the C-SPAN 2 cameras are turned off during extended debate. I think the senators should be made to filibuster the bills they really, really, want to stop, and the first hour of each senator’s speech should be televised, so that if he actually has something to say, the people will have access to it, but after that, the cameras are turned off until the next speaker rises.

A televised filibuster is not a baby; there is no reason not to cut it in half to preserve the device and yet to restrict its use to cases where it’s worth the trouble to use. Tom Friedman has been complaining about how our system is only capable of “sub-optimal solutions.” Maybe we could make them a bit less sub-optimal if some of them only required 51 votes to get out of the Senate.

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