Posted: July 16, 2013
By Celia Cohen
Very little about legislating has much mystique to it. Then there is the filibuster.
The filibuster is the delay against defeat. It is the Last Stand for a Lost Cause.
The filibuster can take the rage that would normally be directed at some bore, dreary and droning and drowning in time while ruminating about legislative minutiae or perhaps reading aloud the Declaration of Independence or even reciting recipes, as Huey Long once did in the U.S. Senate, and turn it into admiration for a folk hero.
The filibuster can be conservative. It was for Strom Thurmond, who set the record for the longest speech in Senate history, 24 hours and 18 minutes long, against a civil rights bill in 1957. When he gave out, the bill was passed.
The filibuster can be liberal, like the one Wendy Davis laid on the Texas legislature last month, as she stood in her pink running shoes and lasted for more than 11 hours against a bill designed to restrict abortions. It took an extra special session, but that bill was passed, too.
The filibuster can also be the parliamentary tactic that ate Washington. Once revered as the sacred right of every senator to speak, it has degenerated from the art of endurance speechmaking to a crude bunch of cloture votes.
It has become so onerous and obstructive, it sent the Senate scurrying into a three-hour retreat Monday evening in the Old Senate Chamber, the wellspring of its being, in a desperate search to simultaneously save the filibuster and restore itself as the world's greatest deliberative body, lest it become the world's greatest do-nothing body.
What the filibuster cannot be is here. Within the rules of the Delaware General Assembly, the filibuster has struck out.
The state House of Representatives even has a specific filibuster-killing provision, informally known as the "five people standing" rule.
If the House wants to cut off debate, all it takes is for five representatives to stand up and demand a roll call to force the House to stop talking and start voting. The rule has been invoked, but rarely.
Bob Gilligan, the former Democratic speaker, remembers one use of the rule when the Republicans were in charge, when it was aimed at a legislator who would not take the hint about going on too long. More typically, if a debate is dragging, a speaker simply tries to prod it along.
"Five people can stand up and stop the debate at any time. I don't think the rule has ever been abused. People have always had the opportunity to say what they want to say. You don't cut people off. That can do nothing but hurt you," Gilligan said.
The state Senate does not have a similar rule, but what it does have is a Democratic president pro tem who is prepared.
Patti Blevins, the pro tem, consulted with Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor who is the Senate's presiding officer, to come up with a way to "call the question," that is, to cut off debate and get the Senate to vote, if it ever had to beat back a filibuster.
"I have the exact wording in my desk drawer," Blevins said. "I hope I never have to use it. No one's ever spoken too long."
Filibustering does not really seem to be part of the legislature's DNA, anyway.
"Maybe we don't have as much hot air as they do in Washington," quipped Gary Simpson, the Senate's Republican minority leader. "We don't have a rule against it, but I have a feeling the lieutenant governor would find a way around that."
Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker, has little patience with the filibuster.
"You might postpone the inevitable, but the majority is going to have its way. I don't think they should be doing it in Washington, either. This Mr. Smith going to Washington makes for good TV or a movie, but not for good policy making," he said.
This is not to say a prolonged debate never happens. There was one in the 1970s on the bottle bill, which was supposed to put a deposit on beverage bottles and cans so people would return them and not throw them away.
The environmentalists wanted the bill, but the liquor, soft drink and grocery interests did not, and neither did the labor unions. It eventually became law, but with a killer exemption for cans.
"I filibustered for five days in June one year. The vote was really close, and we pretty much stopped the General Assembly for a week. It was essentially a filibuster," said Bob Byrd, a lobbyist who was a Democratic representative opposed to the bottle bill back then.
"We debated that puppy for five years, maybe six."
A state without a tradition for filibuster can still have fili-bluster.