Not much happened this past week in Missouri’s Senate. There’s a one-word explanation why: filibuster.
Most of the week was spent in endless Democratic talk to block a vote on a Republican-backed bill pushed by business that would raise the requirements to win a discrimination lawsuit against an employer.
With more than a two-thirds majority, you might think Republicans could just shut off debate. Unlike the U.S. Senate, ending a filibuster takes just a majority of Missouri’s 34 members, or only 18 of the Senate’s 26 Republicans.
But senators value the power that each one of them can stop a bill and force a compromise. So, voting to shut down a filibuster is very rare in the Senate. On only 10 bills have there been votes to end a filibuster in the past 40 years — the last time was in 2007.
The most dramatic filibuster I’ve seen was in 1970. It was Earl Blackwell’s filibuster to block passage of an income tax increase. It went so long that senators set up cots to sleep outside the chamber. Senators’ offices were smaller not so plush back then.
However, not all filibusters are done just to kill a bill. Often, the real purpose of a filibuster is to force those in the majority to compromise or add a provision to a bill.
That’s what happened with the employment discrimination bill of the past week. It ultimately got to a vote because the filibuster forced Republicans to work out a compromise with Democrats.
Other times, a bill being filibustered has nothing to do with the bill itself. Instead, one bill might be held hostage to force action, or change, or abandonment of some completely different bill.
At times, filibusters are conducted just for show. I’ve seen filibusters conducted to demonstrate to a special interest that a group of senators had really tried, ever so hard to stop a bill. Or the majority party might allow a filibuster so they can demonstrate they tried, ever so hard, to push for a vote on some bill that the majority party actually did not want to come to a vote because of divisions in the party or the political dangers of a recorded roll call.
Sometimes what looks like a filibuster is just to slow things down to provide time for behind-the-scenes negotiations. We saw that this past week, too, when what sounded like an evening filibuster was providing time for a discussion to take place just outside the chamber between the Senate’s Republican and Democratic leaders.
In the years after Republicans first captured their current majority of the Senate, the Democratic leader, Ken Jacob, would talk endlessly about almost anything that arose in the Senate. His purpose, as he explained to me later, was not to kill any specific bill, but rather to slow-down the rush to pass a Republican, conservative agenda. The slower the process, the fewer bills that could be passed before the session came to an end for the year.
The true purpose of a filibuster is not always clear. I learned that lesson when my wife, Lori, inadvertently caused a filibuster. She had come by the Capitol for us to go out to dinner during a Senate break. As we were leaving the building, I stopped by a senator’s office.
In the office were some of the lions of the Senate including Dick Webster, Clifford Jones, Don Manford and Paul Bradshaw. One of them asked her about college major. “Political science,” she answered. To that, she was urged to return after the Senate’s dinner break and they would have a “political science” present for her.
After dinner, she went to the Senate’s vistors’ gallery thinking that maybe she would be introduced to the Senate.
Well, it became something very different.
The birthday present turned out to a night-long filibuster concocted for a completely bogus issue. If I remember correctly, it was Webster who first rose and charged there was secret deal cut between Gov. Warren Hearnes and Attorney General Jack Danforth. The scheme, he claimed, was to slip through the Senate that night a proposal to let Democrat Hearnes run for a third term in return for easing the residency requirement so that Republican Danforth also could run for governor.
So those Republican lions, joined by a few Democrats, just blabbed on through the evening blocking any Senate action on anything.
I can still see in my mind the perplexed, confused expression of the Senate’s majority leader, Democrat Basey Vanlandingham, who kept trying to tell his colleagues that there wasn’t any such scheme afoot. There once had been such a measure, but it had been long dead with no effort to revive it.
Even my colleagues at the Senate press table were confused. They kept asking each other what was going on. Nobody had heard anything about a Hearnes-Danforth scheme. I, of course, knew the answer. But I kept silent, feeling a bit embarrassed that an innocent office visit had caused such a commotion.
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