What Hollywood Can Do That Washington Can't

03/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thanks to George Clooney, I woke up with a smile on my face this morning. I know -- how many times has some woman said that? In this case, though, it was because I was thinking about the moving, beautifully-coordinated and executed "Hope for Haiti Now" telethon he launched. The fundraiser was balm to my soul not just because it will bring relief to the suffering inhabitants of that disaster-torn country, but also because it took place at the tail end of a monumentally depressing week in politics. And it highlighted how easy it is to inspire hope outside the Capitol as opposed to within it, where hope apparently goes to die.

This is not to minimize the tremendous effort it takes to put together a spur-of-the-moment multi-locale, multi-media live production featuring scripted testimony, celebrity volunteers -- I got Billy Crystal on the line! -- dignified, affecting performances and real-time feeds from Haiti. But to fully appreciate just how meaningful the event was, consider this: The earthquake happened less than two weeks ago, and already the telethon has raised vast sums that will immediately make a difference in people's lives.

Contrast that to the sorry saga of the health care bill, financial reform, cap and trade, or almost any other piece of legislation progressives care about. Consider, also, that some Republican with a truck you never heard of till this month won Ted Kennedy's seat, and the Supreme Court just ruled that corporations are entitled to free speech (read: the right to buy and sell elections), and you get the feeling that this nation's prospects aren't just not moving forward, but sliding backwards.

Now, this may seem like an unlikely comparison, but what if the telethon's architects were just getting the ball rolling, and some bureaucrat came along and declared an arbitrary hold on their activities? No reason needs to be given, but everyone has to go home. Maybe start again, only to have the plug pulled hours before show time because ... Somebody somewhere doesn't like it. Money isn't raised. No one's helped.

Here's where I'm going: This is the effect the procedural filibuster has on legislation that should, but never quite does, emerge from Congress. Others, including Huffpo blogger and lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, have documented how the filibuster we suffer from today is not the beloved tool of democracy celebrated in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. These days, you don't stand in the well of the Senate reading the phone book aloud to your peers in order to save the republic, because in 1975, legislators voted to change this procedural rule, which is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. Now, all it takes to put the brakes on a bill is for one anonymous Senator to file a motion, and 60 votes are required before it can move forward again. No one has to show up and embarrass themselves actually filibustering, and no one has to waste time listening.

In their wisdom, our founding fathers never intended for there to be a 60-vote bar to progress, and we can see why: Legislation doesn't pass, and problems aren't resolved. Some might argue, as Jon Stewart did so well on The Daily Show last week, that George W. Bush got most of what he wanted in his first term with a far smaller majority. They would say that Republicans are bad at ideas but good at walking in lockstep; Democrats are better at ideas, but, for lack of a better term, pussies. I would argue that being a Democrat is starting to feel like being a Cubs fan -- good for the character, but each season brings first elevated expectations, and then crushing despair.

In any event, it's inarguable that Americans voted for Change with a capital C in the '08 election. And if they're ever going to get it, the first change we have to make is to the filibuster. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa is once again talking about introducing legislation to reform this much-abused, cynical practice, and it behooves all of us who oppose gridlock in Washington to support it, through non-stop petitions, calls and e-mails to our representatives, as well as public protests.

Impossible dream? FDR didn't have to deal with the procedural filibuster, nor did LBJ. Talk about taking back America.