Politics & Society
May Mon 21, 2012
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In the Senate, of course, there is a different impediment to democracy known as the filibuster. The founders considered putting a filibuster into the Constitution, and decided against it. But, the founders did allow each house of Congress to set its own rules. Originally the Senate adopted a provision allowing the body to “move the question,” that is, close debate and move to a vote. But, after a few years, when re-working the rules, and at the behest of Aaron Burr, of whom it could be said that everything he touched turned out ill, the removed the rule about moving the question, leaving in tact the rule permitting any senator to speak as long as he (or later she) wished. It was more than thirty years before this glitch was discovered and the first filibuster launched. Since then, both parties have chosen to keep the filibuster option which not only gives the minority greater rights within the chamber (and no one knows if, at the next election, you might not find yourself in the minority) but it strengthens the power of each individual senator over the whole.What has changed in recent years, however, has been the increasing frequency with which the filibuster has been used, not least because the Senate decided that now it is only necessary to serve warning of one to effect one. The image of Jimmy Stewart standing in the Senate speaking hour after hour is now a thing of fiction. You do not have to actually conduct a filibuster anymore, just threaten one. This change, combined with the growing polarization of our polity, has had an ugly result. Filibusters have become routine. The Senate website offers this chart which shows the explosion of filibusters in recent years. In short, a rarely used provision, designed to secure the rights of the minority party in extreme circumstances now effectively gives that minority the right to bring government to a halt.
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