2011-12-01 / Editorial

Scattering Seeds

BY JOHN A. MURPHY

jamurphy@jamestownlawyer.com

One significant cause of the paralysis of the legislative branch of our national government is the rule in the United States Senate that allows unlimited debate of any issue, unless a super-majority (60 of 100 members) agrees to limit debate.

Unlimited as in forever!

The Founding Fathers did not anticipate the filibuster, the colloquial name given to the practice of frustrating the will of the majority through unlimited debate. The practice is not constitutionally mandated. Its impact is basically undemocratic, as it permits a minority of Senators to control not only the Senate, but, indirectly, the entire legislative branch of government.

The origins of the filibuster reflect this reactionary/antidemocratic focus. It came into being under a rule, proposed by Aaron Burr, and adopted in 1806. Its first notable use was in 1841, with the defeat of Henry Clay’s effort to uphold the right of the majority to control legislative action.

After 12 senators thwarted President Wilson’s efforts to protect American merchant ships against German submarines, the Senate adopted a cloture rule in 1917, permitting a super-majority (now 60 senators) to end a filibuster.

In modern times, perhaps the most notable filibuster was the near 25 hour marathon speech given by Senator Strom Thurmond, by which he succeeded in slowing down the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and made himself a hero to his constituency in South Carolina.

U.S. senators are elected to six year terms, and run on a state-wide basis. They are insulated to a degree from the mundane political considerations that impact members of the House of Representatives, who must run for election every two years within their specific congressional districts. For representatives, the voice of the voters speak very loudly. For senators, it appears to many astute observers, that raising money for expensive media campaigns is the primary focus. Since political spending by special interest groups is largely unregulated and free-flowing, this means that a senator can, if he or she wishes, raise all the money needed to finance an effective campaign from these special interests groups.

In these perilous times, we need national legislators that are willing to act for the common good, and place a lower priority upon perpetuating their stay in elective office.

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