By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN — Ernie Chambers, the so-called king of the filibuster, is headed back to the Capitol.
People who know him, or know of him, are aware of his eccentricities, his idiosyncratic approach to governing. They know what to expect, which is to say they are prepared for outlandishness.
Chambers, the state’s longest-serving legislator, once sued God for the untold pain and suffering forced upon humanity — he was trying to make the point that anyone could be sued, by anybody.
He has repeatedly tried to repeal the death penalty in crimson red Republican Nebraska, he persuaded his colleagues to abolish corporal punishment in schools, he wears jeans and a sweatshirt on the floor of the Legislature, and he claims he has no heart.
He refers to himself as the “defender of the downtrodden.”
Chambers also likes to talk. A lot. Mostly when he doesn’t like a bill.
Chambers, says Stateline, is “among the most prolific filibusterers in any state’s history,” able to single-handledly kill bills and bend the Legislature to his will. So then, why didn’t the Legislature use his four-year absence to change rules or laws to make it harder for him to do so?
Nebraska is one of few states where bills are routinely filibustered in the statehouse — even a threatened filibuster can force compromise — but in the four years the king of filibusters was exiled from the Capitol because of term limits, state lawmakers did nothing to change rules or laws making it more difficult to talk a bill to death.
Some say it’s a Nebraska tradition to give every lawmaker that kind of power. Others say it’s because most lawmakers want to preserve the power to filibuster themselves, should they ever need it. Others say it’s to keep urban senators in check, as they increasingly outnumber their rural counterparts.
Whatever the reason, Nebraska’s filibustering ways haven’t changed, and now the master of filibusters is back.
The 75-year-old lawmaker known for his formidable oratory skills and ability to parlay parliamentary procedure to block or alter bills returns to the Legislature in January after a four-year hiatus. He left office in 2008 after voters passed a term-limit law that many viewed as a method of telling Chambers to move it along, to take a break, to retire.
But the law allows senators, who sit out for four years, to run again. So Chambers did.
Brenda Erickson, program principal for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, said filibusters are rare in state Legislatures — except Nebraska’s. Filibusters can be cut off with a simple majority of lawmaker votes in most states, she said.
“You pretty much never or hardly ever see them,” she said. “Most have limited session lengths, so you cannot afford to have truly unlimited debate.”
Chambers often filibusters through procedural motions or multiple amendments, because there’s no limit on the number of amendments a senator can file.
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said Chambers rarely introduces legislation — he mostly plays defense.
“He picks out bills that he doesn’t like for special attention,” Avery said. “And if it’s your bill you better know your bill and defend it. He’s gonna put you through the ringer.”
Avery said Chambers can do a one-man filibuster by “clever use” of the rules — moving to reconsider or bracket, for example.
“There are all kinds of rules that you can use to delay,” he said. “People have to yield you time, and you have to be able to do it without a bathroom break. … He held us one night until 10:30, 11, and he made it very clear he was going to go the distance.”
Motions for cloture can be approved by a two-thirds majority (33 votes), so long as the speaker decides the bill has gotten a “full and fair debate.”
Getting cloture will be more difficult for Republicans now that they no longer hold 33 seats in the Legislature. The party lost three seats in the November election, dropping to 30. The number of Democrats increased by two to 17, and the number of Independents increased from one to two (including Chambers).
Over the years, the Nebraska Legislature has attempted to rein in Chambers, passing a rule in 1992 allowing cloture to end debate with a two-thirds majority vote and then adopting a rule in 2002 making it easier to end filibusters.
In the past, eight hours of debate were required before debate could be stopped. Now, it’s up to the speaker to decide when a “full and fair” debate has been achieved. Speaker Mike Flood — who was term-limited out of office this year — generally allowed eight hours of debate for bills on general file, four hours on select file and two hours during final approval.
But rule changes didn’t stop Chambers from killing or amending legislation on the death penalty, fetal tissue research, abortion and same-sex marriage. He famously blocked a constitutional amendment in 2005 protecting the right to hunt and fish by introducing amendment after amendment protecting the right to do things such as create, recreate, converse, procreate, sit on the porch and drink lemonade, laugh, cough, itch, scratch, shear and “hunt for the link between Noah’s Ark, Joan of Arc and Archimedes.”
In his absence, lawmakers passed the hunting and fishing constitutional amendment earlier this year, and voters ratified it.
Despite grumbling about Chambers’ control over the Nebraska Legislature, the body still allows unlimited amendments and therefore allows individual lawmakers to wield a lot of influence — if they have the brains and bladder to do so.
Repeated attempts to lower the number of votes required for cloture have failed, some say in part to preserve the power of each lawmaker and to keep the power of the big bloc of Lincoln and Omaha senators in check.
“You’ve gotta have those rules, otherwise everything’s going to be an up-down vote,” Imperial Sen. Mark Christensen said.
Erickson said it’s up to lawmakers and the speaker to enforce the rules and limit filibusters, but Nebraska has a tradition of maximizing “free and open debate” – which is probably more important in a one-house Legislature.
“There’s no cross-checking bills,” she said. “You are the checks and balances.”
Avery said he doesn’t think the Legislature wants to end the filibuster.
“There is a certain respect for tradition and preserving those rules that everybody knows at some point they may want to use themselves,” he said.
Chambers declined to comment on the issue, other than to say, “I’m not my reputation. I’m worse.”
— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]
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