Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Remember that great old black-and-white movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? That was the one where Jimmy Stewart, the Boy Scout leader who becomes a senator by accident, discovers what a gang of crooks many politicians are and filibusters until their misdeeds are exposed. It’s a great moment in the movie — unfortunately not quite as great when the filibuster is used in real life to paralyze action.

For instance, there’s what is going on in the Senate right now. A few Republicans in the Senate don’t like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Congress voted into law over their objections. Now they’ve got a second shot at crippling it.

By Constitutional law it is the President’s duty to appoint someone to head it, and the Senate’s to vote, aye or nay, to confirm. When the President did what the Constitution requires and passed the name of his nominee to the Senate he learned that one senator was blocking it by filibuster. So the headless Bureau can’t function as well as it should, and “financial protection” for many Americans is still just a promise.

A handful of senators have pulled the same trick on scores of other nominees, particularly judges. There are nearly a hundred federal courthouses sitting vacant today because a senator has filibustered a veto on voting for them. This has caused some real hardships, not just for judge-appointees who sometimes can’t take other jobs before their confirmation hearings (are they supposed to apply for unemployment insurance?) but for many persons up for federal trial. The Constitution promises them a speedy hearing, since “justice delayed is justice denied.” But any single senator can delay a trial indefinitely.

Most Senators, both Democrats and Republicans, will admit that the filibuster rule needs to be fixed, since it is just as immoral when the roles of the two parties are reversed, as it was in the Bush years. But that doesn’t stop almost all Republicans from chiding the President for not getting enough done, even when it’s their own party that does its best to tie his hands.


  1. Robert Nowall says:

    The President can always make a recess appointment when Congress is out of session, something specifically allowed by the Constitution—the filibuster is not mentioned, it is merely a rule of the Senate, in the how-and-why they conduct their business.

    Oh, right, this current President has already made recess appointments—when Congress was in session—and, so far, two courts have ruled he acted unconstitutionally.

  2. chemster says:

    Was congress in session, or was it “in session”? Weren’t the Republicans forcing “pro forma” sessions where no work was actually being done (and there certainly wasn’t a quorum or any attempt to do actual business), specifically to *prevent* a recess appointment?

  3. Random Troll says:

    The first comment a perfect example of the B.S. the conservatives are pulling: give a “solution”, then complain about that exact same “solution”.

    Personally, I only know of one time Obama got called to court about a recess appointment, and even then, the Repubs. were pulling a scam to appear to still be in session.

    Look people, Obama -may- be a jerk, but he is still the President and, unlike Romney and his type, is trying to help the MAJORITY of Americans.

  4. Robert Nowall says:

    Since Democrats who objected to the constitutionally-permitted concept of recess appointments when President George W. Bush made them when Congress was actually in recess…and since Democrats embraced and loved the filibuster when they held a majority in the Senate…then Democrats can also be accused of hypocracy for embracing opposite opinions when it involves a Democrat president.

    It’s also to be noted that those who have respect for the Constitution and the laws might look with disfavor on approving any appointments made by an administration which, demonstrably, shows no such respect.

  5. Phillip Helbig says:

    In practice, the filibuster means that one needs more than a majority to decide. That’s OK for changing the constitution, but not for normal business. No wonder much of the rest of the world laughs when the US (with a two-party system as well) calls itself a democracy. East Germany was the German Democratic Republic; calling one’s country a democracy doesn’t make it one.