Inside the Capitol

Sunday, April 24, 2005

4-29 The Political F-Word


SANTA FE � Filibusters are becoming a dirty word, both in the New Mexico Legislature and in Congress. The tactic is a minority party�s means of thwarting or postponing the will of the majority. Sometimes it is called �the tyranny of the minority.� Many times, it is simply referred to as �the f-word.�
In New Mexico, filibusters are a tool of the Republican Party. They are employed primarily on the final day of the session to keep legislation wanted by Democrats from passing.
The New Mexico Legislature has a high-noon deadline on the final day of its session. If a bill you want to see passed happens to be first on the calendar of either house that day, there is no guarantee it will be acted upon.
Currently, Albuquerque Sen. Joe Carraro and Roswell Rep. Dan Foley are the designated filibusterers in their respective houses. Both are very effective for their party.
The all-time best in my book, however, was Albuquerque Sen. Bill Davis, a lawyer, who had the ability to go as far back in history as he seemed to desire to trace the genesis of whatever issue happened to be under discussion. I always remained in the chamber to enjoy his filibusters.
On the national level, it is the Democrats who do the filibustering, or threaten to do so. Even when Democrats were the majority party a half-century ago, it was southern Democrats who used the filibuster to slow down civil rights legislation.
The battle brewing now at the national level concerns whether Democrats should continue to be allowed the privilege of filibustering President Bush�s Supreme Court nominations. Democrats say it is a 200-year-old tradition, permitted by Senate rules.
Republicans counter that filibustering isn�t a right mentioned in the Constitution. At some point, GOP senators may raise that question and through a series of complicated parliamentary maneuvers, stop filibusters of Supreme Court nominations.
Democrats say it would destroy a two-century-old Senate tradition that almost never has been broken before. Their major problem is that they were the ones who broke it and some of those old war horses still are around.
Nevertheless, Democrats say, this means all-out war between the parties, because the Republicans will be using the most potent weapon in their arsenal, something the Democrats call the �nuclear option.�
If that happens, say Democrat leaders, they will use every means at their disposal to disrupt the Senate and refuse to cooperate on major Republican initiatives that will need Democrat help in order to pass.
There are many procedural matters in which Democrats can thoroughly gum up the works. Essentially they are worse than a filibuster, because they don�t take so much work on the part of the minority.
Many rules of both Congress and state legislatures date back to the days before electronic procedures made our lives so easy. At one time, bills had to be read aloud three ties before they passed. Now that procedure is waived because members receive a copy as soon as a bill is introduced and can read it at their leisure.
So the rules of Congress and the Legislature are waived by �unanimous consent� votes that are part of the formalities that occur when a bill is considered. But if one person does not consent to the process, the short cuts cannot be used and 400-page bills must be read on the floor when they are introduced, when they are considered for debate and before final passage.
That�s just one of many slowdowns possible. Others include quorum calls. In Congress, members usually attend committee meetings while the House and Senate are in session. A series of bells notify them when they need to proceeds to the chamber to vote. But if someone suggests the absence of a quorum, all business stops until one exists.
The only effective way to stop filibusters is a bit of cooperation and a sense of fair play. That�s all the minority wants and all it can hope.

I almost forgot a column for Frirday. Sorry for getting them out of order.


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