01/08/2013 03:12 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Filibuster Reform Goes to Washington

As the Senate considers filibuster reform in the coming weeks, politicians and pundits alike will be paying lip service to Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Since Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) won over audiences around the world with his heroic filibuster to save American democracy from the tyranny of the powerful in this populist classic, the obscure Senate rule has been framed as an important feature of our political system. Yet since the rule was amended some 40 years ago, this right -- in the language of the film -- "to talk your head off" has been repurposed into a clerical procedure used to gag dissent and keep important debates from being heard at all. In recent years, the ersatz filibuster has mangled the intent of the founding fathers and made the Senate all but dysfunctional. Senators Udall, Merkley and Harkin have been associating their "talking filibuster" proposal with the film and its extraordinary hero. They would restore the traditional filibuster and make it so that senators would have to hold the floor and speak, just like Jeff Smith did. It is a worthy goal, and it is worth reminding ourselves of the spirit of American democracy that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was fighting to save.

Today, just as it was in Capra's day, faith in the democratic system is wearing thin and people are pretty cynical about just whom representative democracy is representing. In the film, even before the audience gets to know Jeff Smith they are introduced to a political system where senators and governors take orders from powerful men like Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Even the governor's kids know the system is crooked. Smith is chosen to replace a deceased senator because he is thought too naïve to understand the graft scheme cooked up by Taylor to sell worthless land he has been buying up to the government once a dam project is added as a rider to a relief bill. But Jeff quickly learns about the plutocratic reality of Washington behind the democratic façade. He resists the lure of wealth and power to be gained by joining forces with Taylor, but gets framed on trumped-up charges when he sticks to his principles and speaks truth to power. Reading the words chiseled into the Lincoln Memorial at his darkest hour, he starts to see phrases like "government of the people, for the people and by the people" as empty slogans abused by the powerful to conceal their manipulation of the system. "There are a lot of fancy words around this town," Jeff emotes. "Some of them are carved in stone. Some of 'em, I guess the Taylors and Paines have put 'em up there so suckers like me can read 'em."

But like other Capra heroes, Jeff Smith overcomes his temporary cynicism with the help of Saunders (Jean Arthur), a wise-to-the-world heroine who has her faith in American democracy restored through contact with the hero's extraordinary virtue. She tells him that Lincoln was waiting for a man like him who could "tear into the Taylors and root 'em out into the open." They decide that the ideals of the American democracy, an exceptional system based on something more than the "jungle law" of power and money, can't be compromised. Denounced by corrupt senators and pilloried in the corporate controlled media, Jeff uses the filibuster to make a stand. "I had some pretty good coaching last night," he says, "and I find that if I yield only to a question or a point of order or a personal privilege, that I can hold this floor almost till doomsday." He doesn't use the filibuster to shut down debate, but rather to keep it going so that the truth can be heard.

The last act of the film is a passion play, with Jeff slowly crumpling under the weight of raw power. While the senators working on behalf of the powerful take turns trying to wear him down, he personifies the passages from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bible that he recites. Outside the capital, Taylor pays editorialists and radio shock jocks to "spout off against Smith" while his goons push all the opposition newspapers off the street. "I'll make public opinion out there within five hours! I've done it all my life," boasts Taylor. And it all but works; only a last-minute conversion by Senator Paine (Claude Rains), who confesses his role in the whole affair, saves the day after an exhausted Jeff collapses. The audience erupts in a cheer and the spirit of democracy wins for one brief shining moment. It is brief because Taylor, like Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, goes unpunished at the end of the film, receding into the background and waiting for another moment -- and other more compromised men -- to come along; waiting for the people to stop fighting for a principled democracy.

Though Capra often said he that didn't really know who won at the end of Mr. Smith, he hoped that the "plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little lookin' out for the other fella" embodied by Jefferson Smith might help inspire people to better their democracy. This is the spirit that should guide the Senate as they reform the filibuster, for it has become just another way for the Taylors of the world to silence dissent and exercise their disproportionate power. It has become a tool to stop conversations about subsidies to profitable oil companies, regulating the too-big-to-fail banks, the blank checks given to the military industrial complex and hundreds of other topics.

So as the Senate takes up filibuster reform, let's all hope that they have in mind Jeff Smith's vision that government should be of the people, for the people by the people. We should insist that the Senate adopt rules that get debate going and conversation flowing rather than allow it to be a body where deals are cut behind closed doors. They should do away with procedures that keep government working for the Taylors of the world instead of the common good. For as Jeff Smith says at the emotional height of his epic filibuster, "it's not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!" Let's hope the Senate does.