Sen. Jefferson Smith and the Filibuster


Mr. Smith Goes to Washingon

Fictional U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith never had it so easy.

Back in 1939, when he was being played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Senator Smith created the image of the filibuster now seared into the majority of America’s brain. He spoke for nearly 24 hours in the film to defend himself against false charges and to aggressively decry graft in American society.

“Lost causes,” his famous quote goes, “are the only ones worth fighting for.”

But the reality of the filibuster over the last several decades in the Senate is far less glamorous. There have been no recent examples of senators actually having to show up on the floor of that august body to make their impassioned plea against legislation or a presidential appointment. Instead, they’ve simply been able to let the Majority Leader know they object and that would suffice.

Enter eight current senators, a bipartisan group, who are proposing filibuster reform that, has been described by multiple national media outlets as “watered-down.” Unlike what Jeff Smith had to go through, there will be a milder “talking requirement,” according to the main sponsors Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan). Their plan would mandate that senators actually have to appear on the floor of the Senate to voice their objection in person. Some critics though claim the proposal would actually create more potential obstructionism from the minority party and say they plan to work against it.

Here’s a link to the McCain-Levin proposal plus another link to the brief history of the filibuster. Below are quotes from the news conference from McCain and Levin introducing the reform right before the new year. Their proposals would still be required to get 60 votes from the Senate in order to be adopted.

The story tended to get lost due to conversations about the fiscal cliff, the milk cliff, the Clif bar… oh wait, the latter was just in our house as we were getting food ready for a long car ride with our kids.

By the way,  speaking of kids, I had totally forgotten how the minions of the local kingpin in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” rough up the kids trying to spread the truth about their senator. Interesting part of the clip shown above.