Real history of the filibuster reveals it as a tool of self-interest

Several months ago during their obstruction on the floor of the Senate – known as the debate on Judge Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court – Democratic senators were prattling and displaying not only an ignorance of the Constitution but Senate history as well.

 

They would pontificate as to the “centuries-long tradition of the Senate filibuster” and the “senatorial saucer in which legislation is poured to cool.”

As noted in an April 2 Augusta Chronicle editorial, “The ability of a minority party to filibuster an item and bring the Senate to a halt is not a constitutional or early-American phenomenon. It actually only took hold in the early 20th century.”

I believe a little more light needs to be shined on the history of the filibuster as well as the “senatorial saucer.”

 

Originally, the House and the Senate had the same rulebook, which included what is known as the “previous question” motion, which allows a simple majority to shut off debate and vote.

In 1805, at the urging of Vice President Aaron Burr – the presiding officer – the Senate streamlined its rules. One of the things this did was to drop the “previous question” motion, which made possible the filibuster because the Senate no longer had a rule for a simple majority to cut off debate.

It took several decades before the minority exploited the lax limits on debate. As a result, the first live filibuster did not occur until 1837.

The procedure allowed a senator to speak on an item as long as he could stand and talk. He had the floor until he felt he had been adequately heard, and then he would sit down and a vote would take place. This frustrated some senators, and through the years there were numerous unsuccessful attempts to eliminate the filibuster.

It wasn’t until 1917, when the Republican senators successfully filibustered President Wilson’s proposal to arm merchant ships, that a “cloture” vote procedure was adopted. It was Wilson’s arm-twisting and a compliant press that convinced the Senate to adopt a “closure rule” which would shut off debate.

Initially, it required a super majority of two-thirds of the senators elected, but that was later changed to three-fifths of the elected senators to shut off debate. That meant 60 of the 100 senators.

For the next 60 years the filibuster was used sparingly. But in 1975, Democrats changed the rules and made it significantly easier to filibuster an item. A senator would not actually have to take to the floor and talk. All one had to do was announce he was going to filibuster and a “virtual filibuster” would commence – which meant no other debate could continue on that item until 60 votes were cast to shut it down.

In the interim, regular business on other items would continue and not shut down the Senate, as an actual filibuster would. In essence, this was a filibuster in absentia.

Since 1917, the filibuster has been used over 1,300 times, with the majority of those coming in recent years. Even up to 1990, it had been used a grand total of 413 times. However, over the past 12 years it has been used nearly 600 times.

So, one can see that the filibuster is not a centuries-old hallowed tradition designed to allow the minority’s voice to be heard, but a creature of the 20th century that has morphed into a virtual demon that allows a small number of senators to effortlessly place personal agendas above the work of government, with no consequences.

If the filibuster is not totally eliminated, it should be returned to the pre-1917 procedure whereby a senator has to take the floor and keep it as long as he can stand. Even better is to adopt the House rule that allows a simple majority to cut off debate.

I imagine the senators are as ignorant of the history of the “senatorial saucer” as they are of the filibuster.

The story is based on a supposed breakfast meeting between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Jefferson had returned from France and they were discussing the need for two legislative chambers:

“Why,” asked Washington, “did you just now pour that coffee in your saucer?”

“To cool it,” answered Jefferson. “My throat is not made of brass.”

“Even so,” rejoined Washington, “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

 

There is no way to verify this tale, which appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in January 1884, but it illustrates the original purpose of the Senate. While the House was elected by the people to represent the interests of the masses, the Senate was selected by the state legislatures to slow things down and cool them by analyzing the impact of the proposed legislation on the states.

In numerous situations the interests of the people and the interests of the states would conflict, and compromise would have to be reached between the two.

With passage of the 17th Amendment, the Senate, like the House, became a prostitute of the masses – not doing what was in the best interests of their respective states, but kowtowing to the whims of the masses in order to be re-elected.

It is often said bitingly, though erroneously, that a group of baboons is called a congress. Even if not true, it’s certainly fitting. It would be as if neologists observed how a group of baboons were acting and thought their actions were like those of our national legislature. Or perhaps vice versa.

Sort of like which came first, the chicken or the egg.

 

The writer lives in Augusta.

 

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