Edward Davies: Health and politics: time to end the filibuster

Edward DaviesThe machinations behind the current attempt to defund Obamacare are politically complicated and have a prelude several years long.
The evolving story on the federal budget and the rights and wrongs of both it and the Affordable Care Act are well covered elsewhere, but as I type this Senator Ted Cruz is entering the 20th hour of his filibuster, which is intended to hold up the Senate from rejecting the bill which itself rejects Obamacare.
So far his speech has touched on a range of tenuous topics; he broke the infamous Godwin’s Law by invoking Nazi Germany, criticised the hairstyles of his colleagues, and read out the whole of the Dr Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham to his daughters watching at home. In case you are re-reading that, yes, he used his Senate speech to read a nonsense story to his young children.
Most of it has been delivered to a near empty chamber and when he eventually is forced by weariness or time pressure to take a seat it’s unlikely to make any difference to the passage of the Bill. It is riling the public. It is riling Democrats. And even supposedly allied Republicans, with a similar disdain for Obamacare, would now like to see him just shut up.

What it may do is swell the coffers of Tea Party activists and make him feel better about himself, but that’s about it.

His epic speech will not change what happens in the short or long term (indeed it probably won’t even change the course of today), it is merely intended to disrupt a democratic process, imperfect but thousands of years in the making, because he personally doesn’t like the probable outcome. It is petulant foot-stamping with total disregard for the public opinion he has invoked in his defence – the public recently re-elected Obama on the back of healthcare plans as much as anything else so there has been a virtual referendum on opinion in the last year and his party lost.


But it’s also worth making clear that this is not a party political point or a defence of Obamacare. The same can and should be levelled at fellow Texan senator Democrat Wendy Davis, who in recent months filibustered for 13 hours to see out a special session at the State Capitol in dissent over abortion laws which she did not want to see passed in the Republican-controlled (read “Republican-elected”) state (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/27/us/politics/texas-abortion-bill.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).
The coverage of the stunt (and it was just as much of a stunt as that of Senator Cruz) was broadly complimentary in the press to the point that even the manufacturer of her chosen footwear felt the need to issue a press release
But much like the probable impact of Senator Cruz’s speech, that of Senator Davis ultimately achieved nothing as Texan Governor Rick Perry called another special session within 24 hours and signed the abortion bill into law a couple of weeks later.

It is no coincidence that both filibusters have taken place in debates over health as it is a naturally very emotive area, but it is a double injustice to patients and the public. It is precisely because these topics are so important to the public that they are too important to be hijacked by unrepresentative personal interest.

And that is the bottom line – filibusters are not a noble tradition of democracy or an attempt to speak truth to power. They are nothing more than the attempt of one individual to undermine people power and an attempt that is very rarely successful. They enable a single speaker to hijack a cause against scores of elected representatives and the millions of citizens they represent. You may not like the result of democracy but until we come up with a better version, speeches like these have no place in democratic societies.

Edward Davies is US news and features editor, BMJ.