Monday, January 25, 2010


Here's an interesting bit from an article in Slate by Timothy Noah:
The argument against the filibuster is fairly straightforward: It takes a legislative body that is already insufficiently representative (if the Senate's system of allocating two senators to states of varying populations weren't written into the Constitution it would violate the Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" ruling in Baker v. Carr) and renders it even less representative by permitting a 41-vote minority to block the will of the majority. The filibuster's use, though largely malign in the past (segregationists famously used it to kill anti-lynching bills), was relatively spare. In the 1950s, the number of cloture motions filed (a proxy for the number of filibusters) averaged one per Congress. By the 93rd Congress (1973-75) that number had jumped to 44. By the 110th Congress (2007-09) it had risen to 139, a record that the 111th Congress (2009-present) is on track to match.

Today it is an accepted fact of life that the Senate can't pass any major legislation without 60 votes. But as recently as two decades ago, all it usually needed was 51. In the January/February Atlantic, James Fallows writes that this change "converts the Senate from the 'saucer' George Washington called it, in which scalding ideas from the more temperamental House might 'cool,' into a deep freeze and a dead weight."

The most widely cited enabler for the recent acceleration was a 1975 Senate rule change—one that, coming at a time when filibusters were on the rise, sought to reduce them by lowering the cloture requirement from 67 to 60 votes. But this fix (combined with a less widely cited earlier procedural change made in 1961) inadvertently increased the filibuster's use by ushering in the so-called "procedural" filibuster, a sort of filibuster-lite that allowed the minority to block legislation without a dissenting senator's having to speechify himself hoarse (as Strom Thurmond famously did in his record-breaking 24-hour filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act). ... In recent years, the worst abusers have been Republicans. Cloture motions leveled off during most of President George W. Bush's presidency but took off like a rocket after the Democrats recaptured the Senate in 2007.
And here's a graphic from Wikipedia that shows how dysfunctional the US Senate has become in using the fillibuster:

A different, but fundamental political misuse of rules, is currently causing great anger in Canada as the Harper minority government has twice prorogued Parliament in a way to thwart the majority, from Wikipedia:
In the British and Canadian parliamentary systems, the legislature is typically prorogued upon the completion of the agenda set forth in the Speech from the Throne, called in the UK the legislative programme, and remain in recess until the monarch, Governor-General, Lieutenant Governor, or Governor summons parliamentarians again. In Canada, however, prorogations have triggered speculation that they were advised by the sitting Prime Minister for political purposes; the first two of the 40th Parliament, for example, which Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition and pundits argued were implemented by the government in order to put off the will of parliament.
In short, all political systems are subject to misuse. As soon as you clean up one abuse the schemers come up with a new abuse. This doesn't mean you give up. Instead, it says that good government is a continual fight against the forces of darkness.

For a little more background, here is an interview on NPR's Fresh Air. Terry Gross talks to the political scientist Gregory Koger who has written the new book, Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate.

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