Some Thoughts On the Word “Filibuster”

As I noted in another post, the media seems to be turning “reconciliation” into an ugly word.

But “filibuster” is the word with a more unsavory history. (Thanks to HeathBeat reader Barry Carroll who sent me a link to the history of the word.)

“Filibuster” finds its root in the Spanish word “filibustero,” which means “pirate.” The filibuster was originally seen as an opportunity to “pirate” or “hijack” a debate.

In modern American history the filibuster became infamous as a tool used to block civil rights legislation.  This tradition goes all the way back to 1946 when Southern Senators blocked a vote on a bill proposed by Democrat Dennis Chavez of New Mexico that would have created a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee to prevent discrimination in the work place. The filibuster lasted weeks, and Senator Chavez was forced to remove the bill from consideration.

In 1957 Senator  Strom Thurmond (then D-SC, later R-SC)) set a record by filibustering the  Civil Rights Act of 1957  for more than  24 hours. Ultimately, the bill passed. In the 1960s southern Democratic Senators attempted, unsuccessfully, to block the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.

Since then the use of filibusters has accelerated. In December of 2009, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, made this statement on the floor of the Senate :  “We have crossed the mark of over 100 filibusters and acts of procedural obstruction in less than one year. Never since the founding of the Republic, not even in the bitter sentiments preceding Civil War, was such a thing ever seen in this body.”

I wonder—has there has been any time since the Civil War when this country was as polarized as it is now? The division has taken place gradually, over nearly three decades, so that it has come to seem almost natural.  But last week’s Summit on Health Care dramatized just how wide the gap between liberals and conservatives has become. It is not just a matter of what some call “ideology” or “politics.”  It is a difference in very basic values.

Maggie Mahar is an award winning journalist and author. A frequent contributor to THCB, her work has appeared in the New York Times, Barron’s and Institutional Investor. She is the author of “Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Why Healthcare Costs So Much,” an examination of the economic forces driving the health care system. A fellow at the Century Foundation, Maggie is also the author the increasingly influential HealthBeat blog, one of our favorite health care reads, where this piece first appeared.

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