You Talk Too Much
To: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
322 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Sens. Schumer and McConnell
All three of us went to junior high school in the 1950s or early ’60s. If your school was anything like mine, report cards were issued about four times a year. Report cards then, and perhaps still to this day, generated a great deal of angst. These report cards usually set up discussion topics for parent-teacher conferences. But what was new in my junior high report card was a section on behavior that could be checked off by each teacher. On my first report card as a junior high student, and I bet on yours, too, one of my teachers had added the category “talks too much.” This teacher later told my parents that it meant the student would be either a lawyer or a politician. Undoubtedly, your parents heard the same thing.
The U.S. Senate has raised talking too much to a political art form—the filibuster. The word itself has an obscure etymology. While the word may be obscure, its use by politicians is well known. Anyone who has ever seen James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington knows that a filibuster is when a senator, on the grounds of principle, takes the floor of the Senate and speaks nonstop until physical exhaustion (23 hours and 16 minutes in Sen. Smith’s case). We know from the movie that subjecting oneself to physical exhaustion caused by standing at your desk and speaking nonstop around the clock will cause your fellow senators to be persuaded of the rightness of your principled objections. Well, that’s the movie, and while it starred James Stewart as a fictional senator, no real senator behaves in this fashion.
The United States Constitution does not mention the filibuster, nor does it appear in the minutes of the Constitutional Convention. Even more oddly, the word “filibuster” does not appear in the very Senate rules (XXII) that establish the procedure. These rules governing the filibuster have changed a number of times.
While the filibuster is a word that dares not speak its name, it has been frequently mentioned by now-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Sen. McConnell was a fervent supporter of unlimited speech during the Obama years and particularly when it came to nominating members of the U.S. Supreme Court. But then-Majority Leader McConnell had no qualms about cutting off debate and rushing through the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett at a time when millions of Americans were already casting early ballots for president. So, it seems, nominations to the federal bench are an exception to the filibuster.
“National standards for voting and voting registration are needed to ensure we have fair and reliable elections.”
There are other numerous exceptions—between 1969 and 2014, according to a study by The Brookings Institution, there were 161 exceptions to the supermajority requirement to end a filibuster. These exceptions, supported by each party, have run the gamut from changes in the executive branch, judicial nominations, budget reconciliation measures, and most recently—two months ago—a move to increase the national debt. Mr. Smith could search all of Washington and not find any principled reason to continue the filibuster.
There is a principle urgently crying out for Senate action: democracy. While a fictional Mr. Smith made it to Washington, Minnesota has its own real-life version of Mr. Smith in Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar is a pragmatic centrist who ran as a moderate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. She has drafted and co-sponsored, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, the Freedom to Vote Act. The legislation would set national standards to protect the freedom to vote, it would address our campaign finance system, and it would counter partisan redistricting.
The bill would establish Election Day as a national holiday. At its best, America was founded on the principle of self-determination and the right of all citizens to participate equally in their consent to be governed; that right deserves a national holiday.
The bill is comprehensive in its reforms, placing restrictions on the removal of election officials, enhancing ballot protection, and including remedies for failure to certify election results. It would require all voting systems to maintain a paper record so that election results, if disputed, could be accurately recounted.
Finally, reforms contained in the Freedom to Vote Act would provide for automatic voter registration (already required in at least 20 states plus the District of Columbia) and same-day voter registration (currently allowed in 20 states and D.C.) and require states to offer online voter registration (currently available in 42 states and D.C.). The law would contain protections against unlawful voter purges and require notification to any individual removed from a voter roll.
National standards for voting and voting registration are needed to ensure that we have fair and reliable elections. In the absence of clear standards that apply to all elections, we will continue to have false claims of stolen elections. Klobuchar and her co-sponsors are centrist pragmatists who have crafted vitally needed electoral reforms. It would be the height of democratic failure to allow this legislation to fail because of a process only invoked for partisan advantage. The Senate should adopt this legislation by majority vote.
Mr. Smith would approve.
Vance K. Opperman
In favor of limiting senators’ speech