Episode 422: Schoolhouse Rock Is A Lie (Or, How The Filibuster Ate Washington) : Planet Money On today's show: Everything you need to know about the filibuster.
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Episode 422: Schoolhouse Rock Is A Lie (Or, How The Filibuster Ate Washington)

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Episode 422: Schoolhouse Rock Is A Lie (Or, How The Filibuster Ate Washington)

Episode 422: Schoolhouse Rock Is A Lie (Or, How The Filibuster Ate Washington)

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You know, Alex, I am a Canadian citizen.


Here we go again.

SMITH: And for a long time, all I knew about American government was something I learned from a cartoon I saw on Saturday morning. It was called "Schoolhouse Rock!"


JACK SHELDON: (As Bill, singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill. And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.

BLUMBERG: I remember that. It was this cute little cartoon bill on the steps of the Capitol. And then the bill - I think his name was Bill - would go to committee. And then it gets voted out of the committee and goes to the floor of the House and the Senate.


SHELDON: (As Bill, singing) And I sit here and wait while a few key congressmen discuss and debate whether they should let me be a law. How I hope and pray that they will. But today, I am still just a bill.

SMITH: It's amazing because it was the entire U.S. government in three minutes, in three minutes flat - or so I thought. Last week, I was down in Washington, D.C., in the Senate, specifically. And I'm here to tell you "Schoolhouse Rock!" is a lie.

BLUMBERG: All right.

SMITH: It is a lie - the whole thing. So for instance, we just heard how they talked about (singing), oh, the senators debate. And, you know, there's actually - you see two guys in suits debating. But what this did not tell you is that in the U.S. Senate, there's a vote before the debate. There is a debate, an actual debate about whether or not anyone is allowed to debate. And "Schoolhouse Rock!" doesn't tell you that during that debate - the debate to debate - a single senator can slow down a bill at that point before anyone says a word about it. And a minority of senators, they can stop a bill cold.

BLUMBERG: Which is why these days it's pretty rare for legislation to get passed through Congress. It's why these days in Washington, D.C., you almost never hear this phrase.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We signed you, Bill. Now you're a law.

SHELDON: (As Bill) Oh, yes.

BLUMBERG: You hear - take it away, Robert.

SMITH: You just got filibustered, Bill. Now you're dead.

BLUMBERG: Oh, no. Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Alex Blumberg.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today, the reason why a lot of financial legislation - the kind of stuff we talk about all the time here at PLANET MONEY - why that never gets passed in Washington.

BLUMBERG: And why lots of other legislation doesn't get passed as well - the filibuster, how it gums everything up in Washington, D.C., how it might be coming to an end and whether or not that is a good thing.


YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE: (Singing) You say that you won't wait forever on me.

SMITH: Now, Alex, before I went down to Washington, D.C., I had this image of the filibuster. And I think a lot of us have this idea of the lone senator taking the floor of the Senate and saying, no, sir, I will not yield my time. And usually this senator just starts talking, right? You know, starts arguing for his or her position, I mean, literally talks a bill to death.

BLUMBERG: And it's something that rarely happens. It's an extreme measure. It's like one person sort of standing up for what they believe is right, you know, willing to lay it all on the line. It's a rare thing.

SMITH: Yeah, and C-SPAN goes into round-the-clock coverage, that kind of thing. Well, it turns out it's not just civilians like us who have this image. Even newly elected senators have this dreamy idea.

JEFF MERKLEY: I pictured filibustering as something that occurred on a rare issue that goes deep in your heart or deep to the interests of your state, that you do once or twice in your career.

SMITH: Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon is now in his fifth year. And when he got to Washington, he was shocked at how the filibuster actually works.

MERKLEY: And suddenly, every vote, every bill was filibustered.

BLUMBERG: And in fact, the filibuster is so pervasive you can go down a list of things that would probably be law today if not for this constant filibustering in the Senate. Whatever you care about, probably it was filibustered.

SMITH: So let's say your pet issue is campaign finance reform - the DISCLOSE Act it's called. This would have required corporations and nonprofits - and unions for that matter - to report on their political spending. It passed the House in 2010. It had a majority in the Senate, but it died in a filibuster.

BLUMBERG: The DREAM Act - this is the act that allows the children of undocumented immigrants - it allows them a path to legal citizenship. This has been blocked twice in the Senate even though it had a majority of votes it needed to pass.

SMITH: Or perhaps you've heard of the Buffett Rule, a 30 percent tax on the very, very wealthy. That got 51 votes - technically a majority but not enough to pass a filibuster.

BLUMBERG: And these are all Democratic proposals. But it works the other way, too. I remember back in 2005 the Republican majority at the time wanted to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR. And oil would be pumping from there today if not for a filibuster from the Democratic side.

SMITH: And, you know, it's not just landmark legislation. I mean, really, once you have the tool to filibuster, you know, everything is a nail. You know, judges and appointees constantly being blocked - often by just one senator, who doesn't reveal his or her name.

BLUMBERG: And the stunning thing for Senator Merkley, when he got to the Senate, was that to do all these filibusters you don't actually need to walk out on the floor of the Senate. You don't need to talk all night. You don't need to talk at all to filibuster. All you do is pick up the phone - or better yet have your staff pick up the phone.

MERKLEY: You can call up the floor leader and say, if there's unanimous consent, object on my behalf. I'm not going to let us go to a final vote. And so everything's objected to, which means that you're wasting enormous amounts of time because every time there's such an objection it drives a process where you have to get a petition to close debate. You then have to wait two days to have a vote. And should you even be successful in that vote with a supermajority, you have to wait another 30 hours of floor time.

So in other words, every objection wastes a week of the Senate's time. And in the time I've been here there's been more than 60 such objections on average each year. And if each one takes a week, you quickly see - there aren't even 60 weeks in a year - you start to see why we aren't getting appropriation bills done, why don't get nominations done - for judges or for executive appointments. It means that we are deeply, deeply dysfunctional and paralyzed.

BLUMBERG: How did this even happen? How did we get here? You know, I've checked the Constitution. There is nothing in there about a minority in the Senate holding the whole body hostage on every vote.

SMITH: I know. I know. I asked the senators this exact question. And they would say, well, you know, it does say in the Constitution the Senate can set its own rules. And they sure have. Over the last 200 years, they've got, like, a thousand pages of rules. And in that huge rule book they have made a few mistakes. Now, when I talked to these guys, I was thinking about it, and there really are two villains in the historical story of the filibuster. One of them might surprise you. We'll get to him in a moment. But let's start with the first one who definitely fits the bill as a villain. I'm talking about Aaron Burr.

BLUMBERG: Ah, Aaron Burr.


BLUMBERG: If you know anything about history, even as little as I know, you know that Aaron Burr, he's the guy who shot one of our founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel - killed him.

SMITH: Yes, but he's the villain of our story for a different reason, for something else he did, which is he opened the door to the filibuster. I spoke with Jeremiah Baumann. He is the legislative director for Senator Merkley, who you heard earlier. It's Jeremiah's job to know procedures inside and out. And he says when the Senate first began, there were almost no rules.

JEREMIAH BAUMANN: It was a simpler world. It was a simpler Senate. You had 26 guys, many of whom fought the revolution and helped write the Constitution together sitting in a relatively small room. You didn't think that somebody would just literally use every single possible idea they could think of to block the body from just making a decision.

SMITH: And so Aaron Burr, as vice president in the early 1800s, he was going over these rules of the Senate, and he made a critical mistake. Burr was giving them advice on how to rewrite the rules. And he thought, you know, we're all friends here. We don't really need a way to stop a debate, do we? I mean, there's just a few of us. Like, we will debate until we're done, until everyone's had their say. How slow could the Senate really be?

BLUMBERG: It took decades before someone figured out how to really capitalize on this - to think to themselves, hey, if one senator can keep debate going long enough, then every senator has essentially a veto. You can just talk until the legislation dies. Any senator can grind down or even stop the process by simply saying, I'm not ready to vote yet. The first filibuster as we know it, it first appeared in the mid-1800s, somebody getting up and saying, I am not going to yield the floor until you all back down.

SMITH: But it was still pretty rare because there's a problem with the filibuster. When you do it, you have to be willing to be stubborn. You have to be a pain in everybody's butt. I mean, what you're basically saying is none of you - none of my friends, none of the fellow senators - none of you can leave or go on vacation until I get what I want, which is the opposite of what you want.

BLUMBERG: There is a word for a person like that. A word that, this being a family podcast, I will not say. Ah, what the hell, [expletive].

SMITH: (Laughter) So nobody wants to be that word that Alex said until the appearance of our second villain, that scoundrel, Academy Award-winning actor Jimmy Stewart.

BLUMBERG: Wait. What are you talking about?

SMITH: I know. I know. He's the most likable person in history. But that is exactly how he damaged the Senate. Jimmy Stewart played the most gosh-darn inspiring politician of all time, Jefferson Smith - no relation - in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington." Now, in the movie, Smith takes to the Senate floor - I forget the reasons. It's, like, to defend his good name or something like that.


CLAUDE RAINS: (As Joseph Paine) President, will the senator yield?

HARRY CAREY: (As President of the Senate) Will the senator yield?

JAMES STEWART: (As Jefferson Smith) No, sir, I'm afraid not. No, sir, I yielded the floor once before, if you can remember, and I was practically never heard of again.

SMITH: And our national hero, Jimmy Stewart, he proceeds to give moviegoers a step-by-step demonstration of how to stop government in its tracks.


STEWART: (As Jefferson Smith) Now, I had some pretty good coaching last night. And I find that if I yield only for a question or a point of order or a personal privilege that I can hold this floor almost until doomsday. In other words, I've got a piece to speak. And blow hot or cold, I'm going to speak it.

CAREY: (As President of the Senate) Order. Order.

SMITH: Now, this movie came out in 1939. And I picture all these young kids - future senators of America - sitting in the movie theater watching this and thinking, this is awesome. When you filibuster you are a hero. And as I would talk to senators when I was down in Washington, D.C., they would always bring up Jimmy Stewart as, like, you want to know how great the filibuster is, they tell me, oh, you've got to watch "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." So there you go. That's...

BLUMBERG: Literally U.S. senators today would invoke Jimmy Stewart?

SMITH: They still invoke Jimmy Stewart. So I don't see how they would justify the filibuster without him.

BLUMBERG: It is compelling. In the last half century since the movie has come out, the filibuster has come to be used more and more and more. Notably, during the debate over civil rights in the late 1950s, Strom Thurmond, who up until very recently was still a senator, talked for over 24 hours on the Senate floor trying to stall that legislation.

SMITH: A group of senators during this time, they talked for 75 hours straight. They Jimmy Stewart-ed (ph) the crap out of it.

BLUMBERG: As it turns out to no avail, civil rights legislation did eventually pass. But this is what I don't understand, Robert. Those guys, they actually had to talk. They had to bring their phonebooks and their cobbler recipes to read out loud and their poetry to recite to empty chairs. They had to do the whole thing. They had to do more than simply make a phone call. So how did we get to the system that we have today?

SMITH: Well, it goes back to that stuff I was talking about about the Senate setting their own rules. So they have 200 years' worth of rules. There are exceptions to the exceptions to the exceptions. And if you know this rulebook well enough, you can do anything you want. You can filibuster without having to say a word. So here, I'm going to demonstrate. So propose something.

BLUMBERG: I propose that every man, woman and child will get free cupcakes on the first day of every month.

SMITH: I rise in opposition to this cupcake travesty my colleague Senator Blumberg wants to foist on the American public. And I am going to talk all night long fueled by my own righteousness, not by sugar like my colleague Senator Blumberg would have you. You know, at this point, my voice is getting kind of tired. And I don't want to stop talking, right? It's a filibuster - because if I stop talking, then your cupcake bill is going to go to a vote. And let's be honest. Most senators are probably going to support cupcakes.

So in order to continue to stall this legislation, I have other tricks up my sleeve. So one of the things I can do instead of talking is say, well, wait a minute here. You know, the Senate has to have a quorum, a certain number of members present in order to proceed with business. And most of the other senators have walked away from me because I'm boring. So I can say to the Senate, call the rule. Let's get some senators back here. And if you ever tune into C-SPAN, you may see this actually happening. It's called a quorum call. It's some guy reading Senator Akaka, Senator Akaka - going through a hundred names. So this basically stalls for time. This will keep the vote from happening.

BLUMBERG: And also, it's sort of a threat that you can use to the majority. You can sort of say, hey, if you're going to make me talk this whole time, then I have ways of making you leave your fundraisers and leave your other business and get your butts back into the Senate to listen to me talk. So you can say to people basically, if you're going to make me talk, I'm going to make you listen.

SMITH: Yeah, it's basically the right of every senator to make every other senator miserable. So both sides have agreed that basically if somebody threatens to filibuster, we're just going to take your word for it.

BLUMBERG: It's less work for everybody.

SMITH: Yeah, I know. And that's why in the Senate it's technically no longer a majority rule. It's a supermajority rule. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. So since everyone's always threatening to filibuster, it basically takes 60 votes to do anything.

BLUMBERG: So that is the situation we have today. And it is provoking a backlash. Because it is so easy to create gridlock in the Senate, there is now a group of senators who are trying to tweak the rules a bit to make it harder to filibuster.

SMITH: And it's actually sort of genius in a way that they've come up with this. The way they're going to make the filibuster harder is by making people actually filibuster in the old-fashioned way, making them do the Jimmy Stewart thing and making the rules such so that the person who wants to debate, who wants to extend debate actually has to talk. And this is being proposed by the guy we heard from before, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley.

MERKLEY: They have to make their case before their colleagues and the American people. And then the American people can weigh in and say, you're a hero because you're standing for an important principle. And that will gain momentum, if you will. Or the American people can say, you're a bum. You're obstructing a very good bill like the DISCLOSE Act. We don't like secrecy. And how dare you. And they'll call up their senators and say, join the effort to end the debate. But by making the objection to a simple majority have to occur in public and people who voted for debate having to debate, there is a feedback that can make the Senate work a lot better.

BLUMBERG: Now, this sounds perfectly reasonable. Keep the filibuster, but just make it more like the filibuster we have in our minds, more like the Jimmy Stewart filibuster. But we should remind you here that Merkley is in the majority, right? And if the filibuster is more difficult to pull off, then the majority can more easily push legislation through that it wants to push through. In this case, the Democrats can get their way more often.

SMITH: There's little bit of self interest there.

BLUMBERG: And remember; one man's selfish obstruction of the will of the people is another man's brave and lonely crusade for justice.

SMITH: When I was down in D.C. I talked with Republican Senator Lamar Alexander. And if anyone should hate the filibuster, it's Alexander. When the first George Bush appointed him as education secretary there was one lone senator, a Democrat, who opposed him - stopped the nomination. Alexander had already moved his family to D.C. to take the job. And for months, he wasn't even allowed to show up at the Education Department to plan for his term. Like, he had to wait out the filibuster.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Of course, I didn't like it. You know, by that time I'd been a governor and a university president. And I thought I was entitled to get a vote.

SMITH: Lamar Alexander was a victim of the filibuster. But now that he's in the minority, Lamar Alexander says, wait a minute. You know, this filibuster thing is part of a noble tradition.

ALEXANDER: It's important to have a Senate that slows things down and arrives at a consensus before we make a big change in American life.

SMITH: It seems too slow.

ALEXANDER: Well, we live in a speeded-up world. But it doesn't seem too slow when a king or a mob come in and do something to you that you don't like.

SMITH: But there's no kings. There's no mobs.

ALEXANDER: Well, if you have a sudden infusion of passion into the electorate - whether it's Occupy Wall Street, or whether it's the Tea Party, or whether it's any group - you don't necessarily want all of that to change American life in 30 days by majority rule.

SMITH: The Senate, where passion goes to die. And that's a good thing. I mean, Senator Alexander says he frequently reminds his Democratic colleagues of this fact - that someday they, too, may be in the minority. And when that day comes, he tells them, you the Democrats may want this easy filibuster again.

ALEXANDER: And what I've said to them before is, I mean, you might like the idea of a freight train running through the Senate like it runs through the House. But you're not going to like it as well if the freight train is the Tea Party express when the Republicans are in the majority.

SMITH: And you say, I've been there.

ALEXANDER: Well, that's what I say to them.

SMITH: And I have to say, Alex, many very powerful Democrats agree with him. In fact, the most powerful Democrats in the country - President Obama, Vice President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid...

BLUMBERG: Wait, all those guys are voting with Lamar Alexander on the filibuster thing?

SMITH: Oh, God, no. No, no, not now, but when those Democrats were in the minority...

BLUMBERG: Oh, I see.

SMITH: ...In the Senate a few years ago and the Republican majority was talking about ending the filibuster, well, all of a sudden, the Democrats, they were huge fans of the procedure. Here they all are.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If the majority chooses to end the filibuster, then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.


VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It is a fundamental power grab by the majority party.


HARRY REID: The filibuster is far from a procedural gimmick. It's part of the fabric of this institution we call the Senate.

BLUMBERG: That last voice you heard was Harry Reid. And now that he is in the majority, he's changed his tune. He wants to make the filibuster a lot harder to pull off.

SMITH: And, Alex, when I was talking to people in the Senate, there is a real feeling that the Democrats might be able to pull this off. In the new session, if they can get all the Democrats onboard, they can get some rule changes through that can really fundamentally change the filibuster...

BLUMBERG: Using some pretty elaborate procedural tricks, right?

SMITH: They have all the tricks at their disposal. But it is not as easy as it sounds because as they talk to each of the Democratic senators trying to get them onboard, there is a question in each of their minds, which is this - how lucky am I? If I feel that the Democrats are going to be in the majority for the foreseeable future, then why not? Why not get rid of the filibuster and make things move very quickly? But there are some pessimistic Democrats out there who remember when they were in the minority, who think they may soon be in the minority once again. Those are the hard ones to convince because those are the ones that know that when you're at the bottom, when times are bad, what you really need - you need a filibuster.


YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE: (Singing) You say that you won't wait forever on me. I wouldn't make you wait that long.

SMITH: As always, we would love to hear what you thought of today's show. You can email us - planetmoney@npr.org. Or check out our blog - npr.org/money. And I want to thank BuzzFeed for putting up all those clips of Democratic senators from the olden days.

BLUMBERG: And one final very, very important piece of news - for those listeners who are in the New York area, specifically in Brooklyn, PLANET MONEY is putting on a live show January 23 of the new year - January 23, 2013. The title - PLANET MONEY Live: Is America Screwed?

SMITH: It's just like our normal show only live and in person, with shocks and thrills galore.

BLUMBERG: It's sort of like an onstage review of the global economy, sort of like a variety show of old. It's a lot of fun. Details are available on our website, npr.org/money. Go there. Check it out. And please come and see the show. Again, that's January 23, 2013. I'm Alex Blumberg.

SMITH: Get your tickets now. I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.


YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE: (Singing) So don't you get scared, scared of nothing because I'm staying right here. Don't be afraid because I won't leave you all alone.

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