Class Warfare Blog

December 5, 2012

Why Don’t Our Representatives Understand U.S. History?

The other night on MSNBC, Senator Tom Coburn (R, OK) commented that the senate was instituted to “slow things down and to protect minority rights.” This is an interesting way to put it.

I am sure this is what many Senators like to think is so, but to use the phrase “minority rights” is an egregious usage as no one was allowed to vote unless you were a citizen who was also white, male, and owned land (and in many cases Christian, too). What we think of as minorities (blacks, Jews, women, Native Americans, the landless (i.e. the poor), etc.) were left out in the cold. The primary reason the Senate was created as it is was determined by the Connecticut Compromise of 1787. The fear of the creators of that compromise was that smaller states would be overwhelmed by the voters of the more populous states. A bicameral Congress had been all but agreed upon but the prior version of the Senate had members determined, like the House, by proportion of population. Smaller states did not want their rules to be set by the people of more populous states, so the Compromise was to give each state equal power in the Senate, making the value of each state’s vote the same. Since legislation would require approval of both houses, the smaller states could block attempts by the more populous states to dictate policy to them.

One could translate this as protecting minority rights, but it is more about protecting state’s rights and local rights.

Now, this has it’s place when one is dealing with issues that effect only small areas of the country, but is quite dubious regarding global issues like going to war or addressing Climate Change. There are no issues of this kind associated with such matters.

“And if one state can’t nullify Federal legislation, why can 20?”

The Constitution also gives the right to both houses to create their own rules which brings us to the topic of Sen. Coburn’s remarks—the filibuster of the Senate. In it’s current form, any Senator, without limitation whatsoever, can change the rules of parliamentary procedure to require 61 votes (of the 100 possible) to pass any piece of legislation instead of the ordinary 51 votes. This means that 40 Senators can block anything from happening. This is equivalent to 20 of the 50 states determining everything that happens legislatively. The Founding Fathers did not intend this, at least not according to James Madison’s notes (the only record of the drafting of the Constitution we really have).

In the last Congress, Republicans filibustered bills that when they were finally addressed passed easily, in one case with 98 votes. That bill wasn’t amended, it was just stalled . . . and stalled . . . and. . . . The only thing that approximates this kind of power is . . . nullification, the idea that states could nullify any act of Congress they didn’t care for. This was fought over, including the Civil War, and the supremacy of the Federal Government over the states in the domains it has was proven. And if one state can’t nullify Federal legislation, why can 20?

The Senate can change its own rules by majority vote and amending the filibuster rule so that it is like it was pre-1975 is no big deal. I, on the other hand, would limit the number of filibusters to one per Senator per six-year term. These should be used in only extraordinary events, not as an every day occurrence. And when they are used, the Senator using it should speak continuously from the floor on the topic of the bill and no other to exercise it.

And it would be nice if our elected officials understood better the primary political document of this country.

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