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What's The Big Deal With The Filibuster, And Why Don't We See Them In Missouri?

Dr. George Connor, Department Head of Political Science at Missouri State Univerity. Credit- MSU

Sen. Rand Paul occupied the Senate floor for 13 hours in a filibuster delaying a final vote on the confirmation of John Brennan, the President’s nomination for CIA Director. KSMU’s Shane Franklin spoke with a local political science expert about the affect a filibuster can have on the legislative process.

With talk of Wednesday night’s filibuster by Sen. Paul, some people probably are taken back to the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

“That’s sort of a classic filibuster, but that’s probably not very accurate, in terms of how it worked historically, and certainly not how it works today,” says Connor.

That’s George Connor, Political Science Department head at Missouri State University.

“The Senate is a unique body in that it allows individual senators to debate for as long they want,” says Connor.

But why would you want to hold down the Senate floor and effectively hold up the legislative process?

Connor says that the act used to signify “man standing for principle,” with the “high-water mark” of the individual filibuster coming in 1957 with Strom Thurmond’s 24-hour and 18-minute stand against the Civil Rights Act.

Connor says now the filibuster is more of a procedural issue, and growing in importance as the workload of senators increases and time spent on the Senate floor grows more valuable.

“Even more common than the filibuster is the threat of filibuster. So, if I threaten a filibuster, then I can get some concessions out of the Senate, out of the party, out of the committee, because they know in a time constrained environment, if we don’t move on to this, [then] we won’t get on to the next thing,” explains Connor.

In recent years, Connor explains, that one established norm of the Senate -- the health of the Senate is more important than the agenda of the individual Senators -- has been falling to the wayside. This gives rise to Senators using the filibuster as a platform for personal promotion.

Connor continues to note though, each filibuster is different, with unique goals, and in this case a unique audience.

“Historically speaking, the target of the filibuster is the Senate itself. I mean, you’re trying to make a point about legislation. I think it’s clear from yesterday’s filibuster the target isn’t legislation, in this case. It’s really wasn’t even the nomination that was being filibustered. The target was President Obama and the drone program, and the real audience for that filibuster was the American people.”

This approach for highlighting a piece of legislation or political policy wouldn’t work exactly the same in the Missouri State Senate, says Connor.

“At the end of the day, the filibuster is less of an issue in the state because the sheer volume of work is not the same. The priority of the legislation, to get this accomplished by this date, that sense of urgency that is present in Washington is not present in the state of Missouri,” explains Connor.

Connor says it is easier to shut down a filibuster in the Missouri Senate, so the threat of a filibuster is not nearly as potent a weapon in Jefferson City as Senator Paul wielded for 13 hours in Washington, D.C.

For KSMU News, I’m Shane Franklin.