April 4, 2004
about use of filibuster
SC Statehouse Report
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
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
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.
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,
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.
WORLD: American-style freedom of the press
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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
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
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:
SOUTH CAROLINA SCORECARD
Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various
political events from the past week:
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.
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
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