S.C. Statehouse Report
April 4, 2004
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/04.0404.buster.htm

Stop whining about use of filibuster
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

APRIL 4, 2004 - - After several weeks of protracted Senate debate over a stronger state seatbelt law, there's more legislative and editorial whining about the use of the filibuster than heard in a long time.

Instead of complaining, proponents of the measure, which would allow police to stop a vehicle for no other reason than the driver not wearing a seatbelt, should work harder for a compromise.

That's one of the main things a filibuster accomplishes - - it delays action to drive dueling sides to the middle toward a more moderate compromise.

A quick review of the history of the filibuster highlights how South Carolinians have been integral in its use at the federal level.

The word "filibuster" is of Dutch descent, which the Spanish turned into "filibustero" to describe mercenary sailors who fought against governments in Central and South America, according to a 1997 Stanford Law Review article. In 1853, the English word "filibuster" first was used on the U.S. Senate floor to describe the delaying tactic used to block legislation from moving forward.

But while the word didn't get used until then, the strategic practice of long-windedness by those in the minority to delay a bill was well under way for more than 60 years.

According to the article by professors Catherine Fisk and Erwin Chemerinsky, the first recorded filibuster came in 1790 when senators from Virginia and South Carolina tried to keep the nation's first Congress from being held in Philadelphia. They wanted the assembly to be held in a more Southern location - - closer to home.

But a first major tactical use of the filibuster to extend Senate debate dates from 1841 when famed South Carolina orator John C. Calhoun and 21 Democratic colleagues talked for 10 days to block a Whig legislative program. At the time, Calhoun mocked detractors who argued the filibuster prevented the majority from taking a vote on the legislation when he said:

"Action, action, action means nothing but plunder, plunder, plunder!"

Today, John C. Calhoun's portrait stares down at SC senators as they consider the seatbelt bill in Columbia.

For more than two months, the Senate has been hog-tied procedurally by the stalled seatbelt measure. Members have been able to pass other bills after everyone agrees to wait until another day - - to "carry over" - - the seatbelt issue. But when they can't agree on what else to do, the seatbelt bill blocks them from proceeding to other bills.



McLEMORE'S WORLD: American-style freedom of the press

SCORECARD: Winners and losers of the past week



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Currently, the state requires people in vehicles to wear seatbelts. But police can't stop and ticket a driver just for not wearing a seatbelt. There has to be another reason to make the stop.

Critics of the proposal to let police make seatbelt stops without other reasons say giving police new powers to stop people will violate civil liberties and personal freedoms.

But proponents of the legislation say a tougher seatbelt law will save about 100 lives a year based on the experience of other states that have enacted the measure. To get to a vote, they have to get at least 60 percent of senators to agree to stop the filibuster at just the right time of each legislative day.

But many times, senators who agree with proposals like the stronger seatbelt law are reluctant to vote to stop the filibuster. Why? Because they may want to use the delaying tactic at some time in the future.

So with debate going on for two months now, there are rumblings that the old filibuster rule - - given prominence in the federal system by South Carolinians - - might need to be changed.

While we believe a primary seatbelt law makes sense, changing the process is a bad idea.

Most importantly, the filibuster protects the rights of those who don't agree with the majority. While it basically provides a temporary minority veto, it also forces the majority to sit down with the minority to work out a compromise with which all can live.

These days in Columbia, the SC House often rushes to pass legislation without a lot of protracted consideration. The Senate, long characterized as a more deliberative body, shouldn't get in the habit of rushing legislation too.

The founding fathers recognized the differences between the House and Senate. According to one popular anecdote, George Washington once asked Thomas Jefferson why he poured his coffee from a cup into a saucer. Jefferson replied, "To cool it."

In turn, Washington remarked the Senate did the same thing to sometimes hasty legislation passed by the House.

American-style freedom of the press

This week's cartoon by our Bill McLemore:


Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political events from the past week:

Thumbs up

Sanford. Thank goodness the governor has (finally) come to the decision not to sue the General Assembly over the Life Sciences Act. But with all of the fallout he's catching from his own party, he might want to read Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

Hollings, others. Hats off to all who worked hard to secure millions of dollars, including more than $30 million in federal funding steered by US Sen. Fritz Hollings, to buy the important Bonneau Ferry tract from MeadWestvaco.

Thumbs down

Bailey. Rep. George Bailey should be ashamed of himself for filing as a Democrat and, at the last minute, switching to the GOP. It's as if he wanted to keep Democratic challengers out so he could have the field to himself. What a profile in courage.

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