Charles McC. Mathias is a member of Action...

FORMER SEN.

June 30, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

FORMER SEN. Charles McC. Mathias is a member of Action, Not Gridlock! (ANG!) -- an organization calling for an end to the filibuster in the Senate.

The filibuster is the parliamentary maneuver that allows a minority to kill a bill by preventing a vote on it. Filibusterers refuse to stop talking and give up the floor. Senate-type bodies have had rules allowing such at least since Caesar's day. It takes 60 votes in today's 100-member U.S. Senate to shut filibusterers LTC up and sit them down. That vote is called cloture. Then a simple majority is all that's needed to pass the bill.

Mac said at an ANG! press conference the other day, "No principle is more central to democracy than majority rule." Hahahaha. What a crazy guy. Majority rule!

In the first place, he might never have gotten to the Senate if majority ruled. He was elected in 1968 in a race against two Democrats -- one a maverick running as an independent. The two Democrats got 52.2 percent of the vote. Mac got 47.8. He might have won if the third man wasn't in the race, or he might have won in a two-man run-off. But a majority didn't put him in the Senate.

Second, and more fundamentally, to speak of the Senate and majority rule in the same breath is bizarre. The Senate is a counterweight to democracy. Every state gets two senators. California with 30 million residents gets two. Wyoming with 450,000 residents gets two.

The 52 senators from the 26 least populous states could pass any bill they chose to if the "majority" ruled in the Senate. Those 52 senators represent 40 million Americans -- about 15 percent of the population.

* * * *

ANG! is the perfect Washington interest group. It was founded by two former cabinet members with time on their hands. They and an executive director established a board of directors and convened a "national advisory committee" of 20, including Mac Mathias.

Whom do they advise? They advise the executive director and the board of directors, whose total number is four. So far as I can find out, ANG! has no other members.

Of course, with foundation money, etc., the organization also puts out press releases, holds press conferences, places articles about it in the news and on editorial and op ed pages, and, thus, "advises" senators and the general public.

What exactly is their advice about the filibuster? Rules change. Delaying debate will be allowed but a minority cannot in the end prevail.

The first cloture vote would be under existing rules: 60 votes required. If it failed, after a stated interval, 57 votes would be enough. Later, if a third cloture vote was needed, 54. The fourth and final cloture vote would require only 51 senators to end debate.

Now actually, that's not an unwise way to curtail filibusters, if one believes there is a need to curtail them. There may be, but ask yourself: Is what's wrong with this country today the laws that don't get passed, or the ones that do?

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