Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Filibuster history

Lee Harris, over at Tech Central Station, takes a fascinating look at the history of the filibuster. Apparently, in the early republic, the Vice-President, in his role as President of the Senate, had absolute discretion in allowing or closing off debate. He recounts an episode during the administration of John Quincy Adams in which a blustery Senator John Randolph was being indulged in long tirades against the administration by then-Vice-President John C. Calhoun. Calling this the "embryonic filibuster", Harris then traces its evolution through the establishment of senators' right to unrestrained debate on a matter at hand in 1872 (the real birth of the filibuster), and then the invention of cloture in 1917 in response to a "willful eleven" senators who refused to let President Wilson lead us into World War I. With that historical sketch, he then digs deeper into the historical political philosophy, the danger to a democracy of the "tyranny of the majority over a minority", and how consensus (or "concurrent majority" as Calhoun termed it) provides a vital brake against partisan majorities. He provides some keen insight into the inherent conflict between a stable union and partisan politics which thrives on divisive issues. This dovetails very nicely with the constitutional theories of Rappaport and McGinnis on supermajorities that I have plugged repeatedly. In their analysis, one of the conditions where a supermajority is most essential is in areas where partisanship is high.

In reading Harris' historical accounts, it's useful to keep in mind how the role of Vice-President has changed since the early days of the republic. Originally, the Vice-President functioned as a bit more of a balance because originally the Vice-President was generally not politically aligned with the President. Prior to Amendment XII of the Constitution, the Vice-President was the runner-up in the presidential election. Which is how you had Thomas Jefferson, the original Democratic-Republican, serving as Vice-President to John Adams, died in the wool Federalist. When Calhoun was Vice-President, the Federalists had collapsed, and everyone nominally belonged to the Democratic-Republican party, although there were factions and Calhoun was certainly not in John Quincy Adams' camp. Thus it makes sense that the filibuster didn't exist per se at the start of the republic, but became necessary as our present two-party system evolved. Harris sees the filibuster as just one tactic along an evolution of procedural brinksmanship, with each new "nuclear" threat serving to preserve consensus and balance. And he may not be exaggerating when he says that democracy hangs in the balance.

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