My first introduction to the filibuster was watching the classic movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which Senator Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, holds true to his principles, using the filibuster to single handily battle the cynical and corrupt politics of Washington. We may be seeing a little of that spirit in Washington today. Presidential candidate, Sen. Chris Dodd, has decided he has had enough of our constitutional rights being shredded in the name of security. In a one man crusade, he has place a hold on the latest version of The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) bill that would give immunity to telecom companies for their complicity in assisting the Bush Administration in procuring the telephone records of thousands of American citizens without judicial authorization. In a press release he said, "While the President may think that it's right to offer immunity to those who break the law and violate the right to privacy of thousands of law-abiding Americans, I want to assure him it is not a value we have in common and I hope the same can be said of my fellow Democrats in the Senate…For too long we have failed to respect the rule of law and failed to protect our fundamental civil liberties. I will do what I can to see to it that no telecommunications giant that was complicit in this Administration's assault on the Constitution is given a get-out-of-jail-free card."
The original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) was passed after the Watergate hearings revealed that eras domestic surveillance scandal; asserting the basic constitutional standard of privacy that most Americans still expect, that law enforcement agencies can only wiretap your conversations pursuant to a specific court order. However, in 2005, we learned that the Bush administration had engaged in widespread violations of the FISA law, which they argued were authorized by either the president's "inherent powers" or the resolution allowing the president to use military force against the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. In August 2007, reversing the protections guaranteed in the original 1978 FISA bill, Congress passed the Protect America Act, which allowed temporarily for massive, untargeted collection of international communications without respect to U.S. citizens' privacy rights or any meaningful oversight by either Congress or the courts. The bill Sen. Dodd has placed a hold on would permanently codify these new administration powers, and retroactively grant full immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the administration in illegally wiretapping American citizens. This would allow the companies to escape legal responsibility for their actions.
In order for a bill to move from committee to the floor of the Senate for debate, it must have a unanimous consent agreement. This rule would allow Dodd to stop the bill from coming to the floor by placing a hold on the bill, by letting the party leader know that if anyone asks for unanimous consent to bring that bill to the floor, he intends to object and withhold consent. This would force the senator bringing the bill to the floor to make a motion to proceed. At this point, Dodd could filibuster the motion to proceed and it would take sixty votes to override Dodd and move the bill to the floor. In the senate, there is no rule on how long a motion or a bill can be debated. So if Dodd would like to delay or prevent the motion or the bill from being voted on he can filibuster, conduct a marathon speech, yielding the floor only to those that support his position. The only way to end Dodd’s filibuster, cutting off debate, is by cloture. Cloture is a petition by at least sixteen senators to end the debate. The petition must secure sixty votes to pass. Once cloture is passed, each senator is limited to sixty minutes of additional debate. Dodd might not be your first choice for president, but one must applaud his courage to use the senate rules to stand up and defend our constitutional rights. He reminds us that it not only Jimmy Stewart who can play a man of ethics. That sometimes it is not just old movies that get it right.
Sen. Chris Dodd
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington