The Club

Author: Gary Hart

If the “unlimited debate” (filibuster) rule continues to be abused in the Senate, little will be accomplished in the second Obama term. Regardless, proposed reform of this rule is not as simple as it looks from the outside. This has to do with the unique nature of the Senate.

Unlike the House of Representatives, Senators represent States not just district constituencies. The founders of the American Republic wanted a parliament of the people, but they also wanted a forum for the States that formed the federated republic. By its nature, the Senate is more than a smaller House. It is a different deliberative body.

Being smaller, however, means that comity, personal relationships and an atmosphere of respect (stuffiness, its critics sniff), is magnified in importance. The least effective Senators are those who put themselves, their careers, their egos, their ideologies, even the interest of their political party ahead of respect for their colleagues, the institution, and the long-term national interest.

Special interest caucuses have much more influence in the House than in the Senate. The Senate is too small to permit itself to fracture into fragments, or the factions the Founders dreaded. The most effective Senators are those who demonstrate, over time, statesmanship, a long-range view and a sense of history, and the ultimate best interest of the nation. Unfortunately, there are too few of these historic Senators in recent years, but there are a few and they exert a much greater influence than the careerists and partisan ideologues.

Senators, and to a degree House members as well, have a duty to educate their constituencies, including those with whom they may disagree, on the complex economic, diplomatic, and security issues the nation faces. This is particularly true of those constituencies that may have helped the Senator to be elected. There is much too little exercise of this educational role from those in elective office. Everyday Americans will respond positively if a Senator takes the time to break complex questions into understandable pieces and defeat efforts of hard-line ideologues with big media megaphones to misinform the public.

It is clear that the Founders intended our political institutions to be governed by majority rule, as the Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar has exhaustively established. But the unique nature of the Senate, composed of representatives of States, requires respect for a different principle, at least up to a reasonable point. That principle is unlimited debate on the rare issues where popular opinion as reflected by the majority might be, as least for the moment, wrong. And in the case of specifically described measures, such as treaties, the Constitution requires two-thirds ratification by the Senate.

The dilemma caused by tension between clear majority rule and the rights of the minority can be resolved, as is currently being proposed, by limiting the measures on which unlimited debate can be exercised and by requiring actual debate and not simply the threat of a filibuster. As those who have had the honor of serving in the Senate know, however, the rules by which the Senate governs itself (originally designed by Jefferson) cannot and should not be altered casually or expediently.

The crisis our government, our Congress, now faces has been brought on by a minority contemptuously abusing those rules. That minority cannot have it both ways. It cannot demand respect for the rules of the Senate when it has abused those rules systematically, cynically, and destructively. Those who love our country more than they love their political party will find a way to preserve and protect the unique nature of the Senate, the forum of the States, even while moving our nation forward.

3 Responses to “The Club”

  1. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    “The most effective Senators are those who demonstrate, over time, statesmanship, a long-range view and a sense of history, and the ultimate best interest of the nation. Unfortunately, there are too few of these historic Senators in recent years, but there are a few and they exert a much greater influence than the careerists and partisan ideologues.”

    It is a shame that one of these senators, Richard Luger (R – Indiana) was defeated in his primary this year by a partisan ideologue from the Tea Party, because the Tea Party claimed that Senator Luger was “too liberal. I am a lifelong Democrat, but when Senator Luger spoke on any issue before the Senate, I always listened and had to agree with him more likely than not. He will be greatly missed by those of us who know him and by all Americans.

  2. Edward Says:

    Your very accurate description of the United States Senate stands on its own, in my opinion, but the comparison of the House of Representatives notwithstanding, the question for me is “Why has it changed?”.

    I cannot help but wonder whether the majority of those situations before the current era (1980?… 1990?… 2000?) of concerted obstruction via the filibuster in the Senate were circumstances in which either a faction within a party decided to attempt to “hold the fort” against a larger consensus that crossed party lines. This reflects a contrast in which a monolithic minority opposes a stalwart majority.

    So I would ask once again: “What has changed?”. (well, I think I know the answer but will leave it there for now…)

    On a different level, Senator Hart, I wonder if you have followed the emerging proposition that the Democrats in the House might present a Dispatch Petition to bring S-3412 to the floor in a manner that would circumvent the committees, the GOP leadership, and the House rules. Yes, this would take an absolute majority on the part of the body and, as such, a non-trivial if still potentially small contribution of votes by the Republicans (between 30 and 40 if we were to presume a few Democratic ‘absentions’).

    I was unfamiliar with this option until just yesterday… and yet I suppose I am a relatively well informed and politically conscious citizen. Do you have any thoughts as to why the House Democrats would NOT want to take this approach?

  3. Edward Says:

    Well, it’s done… the discharge petition on S-3412 was filed yesterday…

    … and yet it does NOT appear on Politico.com the following morning!

    Note: there were lots of caps in that, but I toned it down…

    …but as of this moment, 7:22 am Eastern, it’s not even on http://www.politico.com/congress or http://www.politico.com/blog/on-congress ! ! !

    Gary, moments like this lead me to the conclusion that we are doomed politically as an information-rich society… because with a “free press” that can only focus on speculation like whether Herman Cain will “primary” Saxby Chambliss or whether Ashley Judd could challenge Mitch McConnell, I can’t help but wonder about the people who would supposedly be electing them during the next two years and beyond…

    … and we haven’t even seen the new Congress sworn in yet or the President re-inaugurated*! (though I suppose the Electoral College meets this week, so at least that formality will be accomplished “on time”… unless, of course, Donald Trump finds a way to buy off some electors with a new reality show (that’s meant as sarcasm, not a serious proposition… just in case someone from Hollywood is reading your blog…).

    * If President Obama or one of his subordinates does follow you, I hope they’ll work REAL hard on that speech…

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