Tuesday, March 3, 2009

End the Filibuster?

Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

Two articles in yesterday's Times on ending the filibuster in the U.S. Senate -- both in favor of changing the rule that allows a minority to veto any Senate action.

David RePASS, "Make My Filibuster," New York Times, 1 March 2009.

Jean Edward Smith, "Filibusters: The Senate's Self-Inflicted Wound," New York Times, 1 March 2009.

See also the Times Topics on "Filibusters and Debate Curbs."

The Constitution requires a super majority in a few cases -- treaties, Constitutional amendments, impeachment, expulsion. But the current practice is a historical development and in fact does not require the all-night, round-the-clock speaking marathon that was the case even in my younger days. Nowadays, all it requires is the threat of 40 members to filibuster not only to "end debate" but to prevent a measure even being scheduled for consideration on the floor.

As a rhetorical theorist, historian, and critic, I have always admired the feature of Robert's Rules of Order that required a super majority to end debate -- this is invoked, usually inexpertly, all the time in meetings you attend where some impatient person shouts "call the question."

But the original rule, as it was explained to me when I was seriously studying Robert's Rules as part of learning to teach group discussion from Carroll Arnold at Cornell, was to be sure that the minority had a chance to express its views, while preserving the rights of the majority to act. In the current Senate practice, the minority is not so much protecting its right to debate as protecting its right to prevent majority action.

The filibuster actually magnifies the already very unrepresentative structure of the Senate, in which there are two Senators from each state, large or small.

I suppose the real test for our own views should be whether we are willing to give up the Senate filibuster when the other side is in power.

Robert's Rules of Order -- 1915 edition online here; "The Official Robert's Rules of Order" site here;

U. S. Senate Rules
here and here.

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