Sat, January 05, 2013

Mike Gravel, Filibusterer

The U.S. Senate is considering making revisions to the filibuster. While the term brings to mind the image of a lone senator reading the phone book late into the night, in recent years senators have brought proceedings to a halt simply by announcing their intent to filibuster. No one actually stands for hours and hours while speaking continuously without a break; the threat is enough.
It’s worth remembering our own loquacious and indefatigable senator of the 1970s, Mike Gravel, once used this tactic.
In October 1978, Ted Stevens was working with Morris Udall, Henry Jackson, and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus on a compromise to the Alaska lands bill – d-2, for short. The compromise included opening some mining lands in Southeast in exchange for added wilderness protections elsewhere, as well as a provision to expand ANWR while leaving the coastal plain open to oil development (a provision that would be included in the final lands bill two years later).
With the clock winding down on the session, Gravel, who had earlier agreed to defer to Stevens on the negotiations, killed the compromise bill over the relatively minor issue of transportation corridors. Gravel believed the bill didn’t go far enough to secure routes for the transport of developed resources.
The d-2 deadline was looming, and with no compromise in sight Stevens quickly drafted a bill that would extend the deadline one year.
That’s when Gravel announced his intent to filibuster. The session ended with no Alaska lands bill. The failure disappointed nearly everyone, developers and environmentalists alike, who just wanted the matter over and done with.
“I’m sure what he did, he did for what he thinks are valid reasons,” said Vern Wiggins, director of Citizens for the Management of Alaska Lands.
Peg Tileston of the Alaska Center for the Environment was less charitable: “It’s incredible. I don’t understand what he’s about.”
A few days earlier, Gravel had issued a plea to Alaskans to let him know what they thought of the bill. He specifically asked whether he should filibuster. Not surprisingly, his office phone rang off the hook with 882 Alaskans saying, in effect, “Hell, yes, filibuster that bill.” (Well less than half that number advised restraint.)
It’s no secret Ted Stevens and Mike Gravel did not like each other. What Stevens said behind closed doors you can imagine, but his public pronouncement on his colleague’s poison pill reflected disappointment more than anger: “Gravel never understood the access provisions we had worked out. I don’t think the whole bill should have been destroyed because his [Gravel’s] demands could not be accommodated.”
Gravel remained defiant. “I don’t care if I am being blamed for killing the bill,” he stated. The senator revealed his primary objection was that the bill lacked a “no more” clause stating the administration would not come back in future years looking for additional wilderness designations. (Interestingly, Ted Stevens would take to making the same argument years later.)
Gravel’s filibuster opened the door for President Jimmy Carter to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to set aside millions of acres as national refuges and monuments. The president’s decree also reignited the d-2 debate and set the stage for the landmark Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, the bill that finally ended the controversy (for the most part anyway).
(For more on the d-2 debates and Gravel’s filibuster, see James Morton Turner’s new book, The Promise of Wilderness.)