Politics or Principle?: Filibustering in the United States Senate

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Brookings Institution Press, Sep 19, 2001 - Political Science - 264 pages
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Is American democracy being derailed by the United States Senate filibuster? Is the filibuster an important right that improves the political process or an increasingly partisan tool that delays legislation and thwarts the will of the majority? Are century-old procedures in the Senate hampering the institution from fulfilling its role on the eve of the 21st century?

The filibuster has achieved almost mythic proportions in the history of American politics, but it has escaped a careful, critical assessment for more than 50 years. In this book, Sarah Binder and Steven Smith provide such an assessment as they address the problems and conventional wisdom associated with the Senate's long-standing tradition of extended debate.

The authors examine the evolution of the rules governing Senate debate, analyze the consequences of these rules, and evaluate reform proposals. They argue that in an era of unprecedented filibustering and related obstructionism, old habits are indeed undermining the Senate's ability to meet its responsibilities. Binder and Smith scrutinize conventional wisdom about the filibuster—and show that very little of it is true. They focus on five major myths: that unlimited debate is a fundamental right to differentiate the Senate from the House of Representatives; that the Senate's tradition as a deliberative body requires unlimited debate; that the filibuster is reserved for a few issues of the utmost national importance; that few measures are actually killed by the filibuster; and that senators resist changing the rules because of a principled commitment to deliberation. In revising conventional wisdom about the filibuster, Binder and Smith contribute to ongoing debates about the dynamics of institutional change in the American political system. The authors conclude by suggesting reforms intended to enhance the power of determined majorities while preserving the rights of chamber minorities. They advocate, for example, lowering the number of votes required to end debate while increasing the amount of time for senators to debate controversial bills. Reform is possible, they suggest, that is consistent with the Senate's unique size and responsibilities.

 

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Contents

The Politics and Principle of the Filibuster
1
The Framers and Minority Rights in the Senate
4
The Modern Senate Filibuster
6
Revisiting the Received Wisdom
19
A Perspective on Institutional Change
23
Reforming the Senate
26
The Original versus the Traditional Senate
29
The Framers and the Design of the Senate
30
Why Are There Not More Trivial Filibusters?
111
Conclusion
115
Appendix 4A
116
Appendix 4B
119
Appendix 4C
121
The Filibuster and the LittleHarm Thesis
127
Measures Killed by Filibuster
129
Beyond Measures Killed by Filibusters
141

Procedural Choices in the Original Senate
33
Legislating in the Original Senate
39
Conclusions
50
Senate Tradition Revisited
53
Contours of Senate Tradition
55
Legislating in the Traditional Senate
59
Tradition Viewed from Within
70
Toward Cloture
78
Tradition Revisited
79
Politics Principle and the Trivialization of the Filibuster
83
The Substance and Significance of Issues Subject to Filibusters
85
Partisanship and Filibusters
90
Patterns of Support and Opposition to Cloture
92
Patterns of Support and Opposition to Cloture Reform
105
The Filibuster and the Moderation of Legislation
153
Conclusion
158
Senate Support for Limits on Debate
161
Placing Limits on Debate in the Standing Rules
163
Placing Limits on Debate in Statutes
185
Conclusion
194
The Past and Future of the Senate
197
The Political Past of the Filibuster
198
When Is Reform Expected?
205
Proposals for Reform
209
Concluding Observations
217
Notes
219
Index
243
Copyright

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About the author (2001)

Sarah Binder is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. Her previous books include Minority Rights, Majority Rule: Partisanship and the Development of Congress (Cambridge University Press, 1997). Steven S. Smith is the director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of several books on congressional politics, including The American Congress (Houghton Mifflin, 1995) and Call to Order: Floor Politics in the House and Senate (Brookings, 1989).

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