One of the most famous films that Jimmy Stewart ever had to stand to the point of exhaustion in was Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Made almost a decade before his even more famous yet less senatorial It’s a Wonderful Life, the film tells the story of a small-town man who is appointed as a U.S. Senator to replace one that has suddenly died. Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic man who takes his new job almost too seriously. However, Smith’s wide-eyed wonder at the seat of government is soon rocked by political corruption and dirty dealings.
Smith tries to arrange the use of public land for boy rangers in his home state, causing a problem for the building of a dam in the same area — a dam that’s a critical part of a bill being pursued by local tycoon and political heavy Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) who has the state’s other Senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), as well as the media back home, in his pocket. When Smith sees he’s being railroaded out of the process, his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) helps him use the political machine to uncover the truth.
Smith is forced to take the Senate floor, beginning a one-man filibuster to delay the voting on the bill until the people from his home state cry out to support his cause. Without pink sneakers, Smith makes it just shy of 24 hours before collapsing from exhaustion.
So it got us wondering: can a single U.S. Senator take over the Senate floor and filibuster for 24 hours (or more)?
The Answer: Yes (sort of)
The filibuster has been an element of American politics for more than 150 years, and there is evidence that it goes back to the time of the Roman Empire. It exists as a way for a minority in the Senate to block or delay legislation by not allowing it to come to a vote. Once a Senator has the floor, he or she is entitled to debate the issue for as long as he or she sees fit. Or, as Smith says in the film: “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.”
Filibusters are easily achieved when a group of Senators band together, only yielding the floor to each other rather than the opposition. However, it is much more impressive (and dramatic) for a single Senator to filibuster for hours on end. Because Senate rules require them to remain standing and not stop talking, they are not allowed breaks to use the bathroom, eat, or sleep.
Over the years, there have been some notable filibusters, including record-holder Strom Thurman’s 24-hour-18-minute filibuster in 1957 against the Civil Rights Act. He was not the only Senator to try to block this action. A total of 57 days of filibustering took place in an attempt to block this legislation.
Other high-profile one-person filibusters include Alfonse D’Amato’s 23-hour-30-minute filibuster of a military bill in 1986, Wayne Morse’s 20-hour-26-minute filibuster of the Tidelands Oil bill of 1953, and most recently Rand Paul’s near-13-hour filibuster of President Barack Obama’s appointment of John Brennan to the head of the CIA in March of this year.
It’s interesting to note that in the film, Jefferson Smith’s filibuster lasted for close to 24 hours. (The last actual mention of the time was a CBS radio announcer saying it has lasted 23 hours and 16 minutes, before things lead into the climax of the film, with less than nine minutes left before the credits.)
At the time of the film’s release, this was a massive filibuster, with the official record of the time set by Robert La Follette Sr.’s 18-hour-23-minute filibuster of the Aldrich-Vreeland currency bill in 1908. You go, Jimmy Stewart!
Almost a century ago, Senators adopted Rule 22, which took effect in 1919. This rule provided for “cloture,” in which a supermajority of the Senate can vote to stop a filibuster. Cloture offers a way to avoid a small minority in the body to hold hostage a bill or a vote that has otherwise strong support. The original requirement was to have a two-thirds majority vote (which would be 67 out of the 100 Senators, if all are present), but it has since been reduced to a three-fifths majority vote (which would be 60 out of the 100 Senators, if all are present).
Because filibustering often happens along party lines, and it is not uncommon for the majority party to hold less than 60 seats, cloture does not always work. In fact, even though Rule 22 was first available in 1919 (and used that year to end a filibuster on the Treaty of Versailles), it was relatively uncommon for it to be invoked. Many Senators felt that while filibusters were an inconvenience, a Senator should be entitled to speak as much as he or she wants.
During the 1930s (around the time that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was being made) Senator Huey P. Long was famous for filibustering bills he disagreed with. During his filibusters, he was known to ramble on about recipes and stories, often reading directly from books or government documents, just to drag out the debate.
However, when Jefferson Smith started his filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the entire Senate walked out on him. He had to call a quorum in order to continue the session. In a case like this, the Senate would have had no problem invoking cloture with a super-duper-majority of more than 90 Senators.
But that wouldn’t make for a very exciting film, would it?
What About Texas?
Most recently, filibustering has been in the news because of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ historic filibustering of anti-abortion legislation on June 25th. Her filibuster lasted for 13 hours, and while she was eventually forced to relinquish the floor, the bill was not passed because the assembled crowd drowned out the Senate’s ability to cast a vote before the midnight deadline.
This is a different case than good ol’ Mr. Smith’s because Davis is a member of the Texas State Senate, which operates by different rules. During a filibuster there, the Senator cannot lean on anything or stop talking at all. He or she also must stay on topic and cannot resort to ramblings on unrelated matters (like chicken soup recipes or reading the Constitution). The Senator is allowed two warnings on these procedures, but if it happens a third time, the State Senate can vote to stop the filibuster.
So, Could Jefferson Smith Have Done It?
Back in 1939, he absolutely could have, and for the most part, things could have played out the way they’re presented in the film. This is, of course, if he managed to avoid cloture, which would have been relatively easy to invoke. In fact, for this whole thing to work, the film’s climax relies on a passionate change of heart from Senator Paine at the eleventh hour (or rather, the 24th hour), during which he fires a gun (huh?!) in the hallway outside the Senate chambers and bellows a confession of political corruption. Still, the point of Smith’s filibuster wasn’t to kill a bill but rather to get the truth out, which was his real challenge back home.
In today’s world, Jefferson Smith could launch into a 24-hour filibuster, and with the modern tools of the Internet, Twitter, live-streaming, and round-the-clock cable news, it would be easier for him to get his message disseminated throughout his home state. One advantage of our modern age over the world of 1939 is that a man like Jim Taylor wouldn’t be able to hold the media hostage (something all but proven by the outpouring of online support for Wendy Davis). Smith wouldn’t have to rely on his trusty and dedicated army of boy rangers and a do-it-yourself printing press to get the word out.
Heck, a Smith-like stunt would likely set the blogosphere on fire and result in hundreds of Facebook shares and lazy articles on what celebrities Tweeted about the event.
In the end, Mr. Smith could go to Washington in 1939 or 2013 and could get his message heard. #StandWithSmith