Monday, April 8, 2013

The Filibuster

If you seek the definition of filibuster in the dictionary, you find it has two separate meanings. The first definition is “the use of obstructive tactics in a legislative body. The second definition is “to take part in a private military action in a foreign country.” The State of Texas has enjoyed filibusters of both types.

Aaron Burr, former vice-president of the United States, attempted a filibuster (second definition) aimed at taking over Mexico by gathering privately paid troops in what was then known as “no man’s land” between the Neches and Sabine Rivers–the area now known as Orange County. The ambitious filibuster planned by Aaron Burr never got off of the ground.

Texas has experienced numerous other filibusters, primarily in the Texas Senate. The most common type filibuster known to most citizens is the effort of a member of a senatorial body to speak as long as possible in hopes the fellow senators will tire of listening to him talk and eventually vote his way.

The recent filibuster of Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky was at least a real filibuster in the true sense of the word. Unfortunately, the United States Senate has suffered by the threat of filibusters more than by filibuster. Recently, Republican Party members of the U. S. Senate have generally been able to thwart legislation simply through the threat of a filibuster. I have always felt that anyone who threatens to speak at length in the United States Senate should be held to his threat. As the experience with Senator Paul has proven, a real filibuster can last only so long and then the Senate can move on with the business favored by the majority of members.

The rules of the United States Senate and of the Texas State Senate are somewhat similar but different in detail. The key to the majority of members of a Senate defeating or shortening a filibuster are the rules related to closure. In the U.S. Senate a filibuster can be closed or prevented by 60 votes.

In the Texas Senate a filibuster cannot be preempted. Texas filibusters are ended only when the senator who has the floor gives up or is ruled out of order by the Chair. After some senator moves the previous question, and it is carried, the member who chooses to filibuster cannot leave his or her feet, cannot leave the presence of the Senate Chamber, and must maintain remarks which are germane to the subject on which the filibuster arose. Stories of senators reading from telephone books, singing hymns from the Baptist Hymnal, and other such delaying tactics will not be tolerated in the Texas Senate in that they would not be germane to the issue being debated.

A one-time record holder of the lengthy filibuster in the Texas Senate was a senator from Fort Worth, Don Kennard. Kennard was opposed to numerous measures pending in the Texas Senate and desired to take up as much time as possible via filibuster. Filibusters in the Texas Senate are most often and most effectively applied in the closing hours of the legislative session which is limited to 140 days. In order to have adequate material to discuss in order to stay germane, Kennard introduced a measure to create a hall of fame for distinguished Texans. He could then virtually read the phone book in discussing proposed candidates for membership in the distinguished body he proposed creating. He injected a little humor into his discussion by naming various members of the House and Senate who wandered in and out of the Senate Chambers while he was speaking.

Kennard once stood for 29 hours and 22 minutes filibustering in the cause of making UT Arlington a four-year institution. And although a filibustering Texas senator must remain on his feet at his desk, he can yield for questions from fellow senators so long as the yielding does not surrender him the floor. The presiding officer has the option to grant that request. It is generally granted as a matter of courtesy to any filibustering senator. Friends and people of the same persuasion of the filibustering senator can and do frequently help out by asking lengthy questions, some of which may require an hour or so even to pose the question.

The requirements that a senator stand at his or her desk during a filibuster also raises numerous other questions of personal comfort. Generally, the announcement of a filibuster on the part of a Texas senator is accompanied by the senator, or his staff, producing a comfortable pair of tennis shoes or walking shoes to wear during the period of the lengthy debate. The other questions are somewhat more personal in how the senator involved in the filibuster can choose to relieve himself in other personal matters.

The above subject of personal relief is so interesting that Dr. James L. Petry, a urologist from Port Arthur, once traveled to Austin and wrote an article for the Texas Medical Journal on urological matters related to a filibuster based on personal interviews of Texas senators.

With all of the accompanying questions related to filibusters, particularly in Texas, when exercised in the closing hours of a legislative session, they can be effective in killing legislation or requiring its amendment, making it more palatable to the opposing senator. Senators threatening to speak at length on any subject, I do not begrudge the right. But legislative bodies such as the United States Senate should not avoid voting on good legislation because of a mere threat of a lengthy speech.

Senators who threaten a filibuster should be held to follow through. While the public may experience some benefits from lengthy discussion of the merits of various pieces of legislation, they would profit even more if the members the public elected would simply wait the filibuster out, and then vote on the pending legislation.

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