Governmenty stuff.

(Nothing exciting, inspiring or salacious in this one, folks. Sorry.)

In recent weeks there’s been talk of using a procedure called “reconciliation” to pass health-care reform in the Senate. It’s controversial because reconciliation is not subject to a filibuster, which effectively means that it only takes 51 votes to pass a bill instead of 60. Because the Democrats are currently in power, the Republicans are complaining about the potential use of reconciliation. Back when the Republicans were in power, the Democrats complained about the potential use of reconciliation. And so on.

Here’s a bit from the Senate’s online history of itself, oft-quoted by opponents of reconciliation (whichever party that happens to be at the moment):

In selecting an appropriate visual symbol of the Senate in its founding period, one might consider an anchor, a fence, or a saucer. Writing to Thomas Jefferson, who had been out of the country during the Constitutional Convention, James Madison explained that the Constitution’s framers considered the Senate to be the great “anchor” of the government. To the framers themselves, Madison explained that the Senate would be a “necessary fence” against the “fickleness and passion” that tended to influence the attitudes of the general public and members of the House of Representatives. George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to “cool” House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea.

In short, the Senate was meant to slow things down and cool things off, lest you drink hot legislation too quickly and scorch your throat.

The Senate was supposed to temper the democratic impulses of the House, to slow down the legislative process and make it more deliberative. But nowadays, whenever the majority party whines about the minority using the filibuster, it seems that they simply want to ram legislation through without careful deliberation–and that’s fine with me, if we’re talking about a bill I like. At the same time, whenever the minority party whines about the majority using reconciliation and subverting the deliberative nature of the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” it seems that they simply want to stop the bill–and that’s fine with me, if we’re talking about a bill I don’t like.

There is something about the modern Senate that certainly isn’t what the Framers intended, something that does, in my humble but probably correct opinion, damage the deliberative nature of the Senate. It’s the 17th Amendment, which requires that Senators be elected by the people of a state instead of by that state’s legislature. Usta be that Senators, because they represented the state governments, tried to protect the power and interests of the state governments from the intrusion of the national government. Not that the state governments were somehow more pure, noble or enlightened than federal legislators–there’s no reason to suspect that at all. But it probably did a better job of pitting egomaniacal power against egomaniacal power (in this case, state power against federal power), thereby slowing the process down. That right there’d be plenty of deliberation.

Deliberative or not, there’s absolutely no law or constitutional provision stopping a simple majority of Senators from changing the rules of that chamber, including the “obstructionist” filibuster and the “nuclear option” reconciliation rules. I would love to see a Senate majority simply say, “We know it’ll cost us the next election, but we’re getting rid of the filibuster and we’re going to pass laws with 51 votes instead of 60. We’re going to be a majority-rules chamber, just like the House is, just like the Senate once was.” There just aren’t any Senators, much less 51 of them, with the testicular fortitude to do it.

Nope, nothing interesting under here, either. I think I’ll have a good work-related topic soon, but I have to see how things play out this week.

4 comments

  1. On many conservative news sources I feel like I’ve heard a hundred repetitive complaints about the filibuster and it’s possible “unethical” and “unconstitutional” use by the democrats. Interestingly enough, historically 16 of the 22 times it has been utilized it was the republicans who did so. I hate politics.

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  2. I think you meant 3/5 majority, unless my reading skills and/or knowledge of government have failed me, but either way, it takes a simple majority to change the rules, according to (A) the Constitution and (B) the Supreme Court. Politics might dictate otherwise, but it only takes a majority with guts–or even a Vice-President with the guts to overrule the parliamentarian, which is the VP’s prerogative as President of the Senate–to change the rules–even Rule 22.

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