Politics or Principle?: Filibustering in the United States Senate

Brookings Institution Press
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Is American democracy being derailed by the United States Senate filibuster? Is the filibuster an important right that improves the political process or an increasingly partisan tool that delays legislation and thwarts the will of the majority? Are century-old procedures in the Senate hampering the institution from fulfilling its role on the eve of the 21st century?

The filibuster has achieved almost mythic proportions in the history of American politics, but it has escaped a careful, critical assessment for more than 50 years. In this book, Sarah Binder and Steven Smith provide such an assessment as they address the problems and conventional wisdom associated with the Senate's long-standing tradition of extended debate.

The authors examine the evolution of the rules governing Senate debate, analyze the consequences of these rules, and evaluate reform proposals. They argue that in an era of unprecedented filibustering and related obstructionism, old habits are indeed undermining the Senate's ability to meet its responsibilities. Binder and Smith scrutinize conventional wisdom about the filibuster—and show that very little of it is true. They focus on five major myths: that unlimited debate is a fundamental right to differentiate the Senate from the House of Representatives; that the Senate's tradition as a deliberative body requires unlimited debate; that the filibuster is reserved for a few issues of the utmost national importance; that few measures are actually killed by the filibuster; and that senators resist changing the rules because of a principled commitment to deliberation. In revising conventional wisdom about the filibuster, Binder and Smith contribute to ongoing debates about the dynamics of institutional change in the American political system. The authors conclude by suggesting reforms intended to enhance the power of determined majorities while preserving the rights of chamber minorities. They advocate, for example, lowering the number of votes required to end debate while increasing the amount of time for senators to debate controversial bills. Reform is possible, they suggest, that is consistent with the Senate's unique size and responsibilities.

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About the author

Sarah Binder is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. Her previous books include Minority Rights, Majority Rule: Partisanship and the Development of Congress (Cambridge University Press, 1997). Steven S. Smith is the director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of several books on congressional politics, including The American Congress (Houghton Mifflin, 1995) and Call to Order: Floor Politics in the House and Senate (Brookings, 1989).

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Additional Information

Publisher
Brookings Institution Press
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Published on
Sep 19, 2001
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Pages
264
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ISBN
9780815723516
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Language
English
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Genres
Political Science / American Government / Legislative Branch
Political Science / American Government / National
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Sarah A. Binder
Gridlock is not a modern legislative condition. Although the term is said to have entered the American political lexicon after the 1980 elections, Alexander Hamilton complained about it more than two hundred years ago. In many ways, stalemate seems endemic to American politics. Constitutional skeptics even suggest that the framers intentionally designed the Constitution to guarantee gridlock. In Stalemate, Sarah Binder examines the causes and consequences of gridlock, focusing on the ability of Congress to broach and secure policy compromise on significant national issues. Reviewing more than fifty years of legislative history, Binder measures the frequency of deadlock during that time and offers concrete advice for policymakers interested in improving the institutional capacity of Congress. Binder begins by revisiting the notion of "framers' intent," investigating whether gridlock was the preferred outcome of those who designed the American system of separated powers. Her research suggests that frequent policy gridlock might instead be an unintended consequence of constitutional design. Next, she explores the ways in which elections and institutions together shape the capacity of Congress and the president to make public law. She examines two facets of its institutional evolution: the emergence of the Senate as a coequal legislative partner of the House and the insertion of political parties into a legislative arena originally devoid of parties. Finally, she offers a new empirical approach for testing accounts of policy stalemate during the decades since World War II. These measurements reveal patterns in legislative performance during the second half of the twentieth century, showing the frequency of policy deadlock and the legislative stages at which it has most often emerged in the postwar period. Binder uses the new measure of stalemate to explain empirical patterns in the frequency of gridlock. The results weave together the effects of institutions and elections and place in perspective the impact of divided government on legislative performance. The conclusion addresses the consequences of legislative stalemate, assessing whether and to what degree deadlock might affect electoral fortunes, political ambitions, and institutional reputations of legislators and presidents. The results suggest that recurring episodes of stalemate pose a dilemma for legislators and others who care about the institutional standing and capacity of Congress. Binder encourages scholars, political observers, and lawmakers to consider modest reforms that could have strong and salutary effects on the institutional standing and legitimacy of Congress and the president.
Steven S. Smith
With its rock-bottom approval ratings, acrimonious partisan battles, and apparent inability to do its legislative business, the U.S. Senate might easily be deemed unworthy of attention, if not downright irrelevant. This book tells us that would be a mistake. Because the Senate has become the place where the policy-making process most frequently stalls, any effective resolution to our polarized politics demands a clear understanding of how the formerly august legislative body once worked and how it came to the present crisis. Steven S. Smith provides that understanding in The Senate Syndrome.

Like the Senate itself, Smith’s account is grounded in history. Countering a cacophony of inexpert opinion and a widespread misunderstanding of political and legislative history, the book fills in a world of missing information—about debates among senators concerning fundamental democratic processes and the workings of institutional rules, procedures, and norms. And Smith does so in a clear and engaging manner. He puts the present problems of the Senate—the “Senate syndrome,” as he calls them—into historical context by explaining how particular ideas and procedures were first framed and how they transformed with the times. Along the way he debunks a number of myths about the Senate, many perpetuated by senators themselves, and makes some pointed observations about the media’s coverage of Congress.

The Senate Syndrome goes beyond explaining such seeming technicalities as the difference between regular filibusters and post-cloture filibusters, the importance of chair rulings, the changing role of the parliamentarian, and the debate over whether appeals of points of order should be subject to cloture margins, to show why understanding them matters. At stake is resolution of the Senate syndrome, and the critical underlying struggle between majority rule and minority rights in American policy making.

Steven S. Smith
Events in Russia since the late 1980s have created a rare opportunity to watch the birth of democratic institutions close at hand. Here Steven Smith and Thomas Remington provide the first intensive, theoretically grounded examination of the early development of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Federation's parliament created by the 1993 constitution. They offer an integrated account of the choices made by the newly elected members of the Duma in establishing basic operating arrangements: an agenda-setting governing body, a standing committee system, an electoral law, and a party system. Not only do these decisions promise to have lasting consequences for the post-communist Russian regime, but they also enable the authors to test assumptions about politicians' goals from the standpoint of institutional theory.

Smith and Remington challenge in particular the notion, derived from American contexts, that politicians pursue a single, overarching goal in the creation of institutions. They argue that politicians have multiple political goals--career, policy, and partisan--that drive their choices. Among Duma members, the authors detect many cross currents of interests, generated by the mixed electoral system, which combines both single-member districts and proportional representation, and by sharp policy divisions and an emerging party system. Elected officials may shift from concentrating on one goal to emphasizing another, but political contexts can help determine their behavior. This book brings a fresh perspective to numerous theories by incorporating first-hand accounts of major institutional choices and placing developments in their actual context.

Sarah A. Binder
For better or worse, federal judges in the United States today are asked to resolve some of the nation's most important and contentious public policy issues. Although some hold onto the notion that federal judges are simply neutral arbiters of complex legal questions, the justices who serve on the Supreme Court and the judges who sit on the lower federal bench are in fact crafters of public law. In recent years, for example, the Supreme Court has bolstered the rights of immigrants, endorsed the constitutionality of school vouchers, struck down Washington D.C.'s blanket ban on handgun ownership, and most famously, determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. The judiciary now is an active partner in the making of public policy.

Judicial selection has been contentious at numerous junctures in American history, but seldom has it seemed more acrimonious and dysfunctional than in recent years. Fewer than half of recent appellate court nominees have been confirmed, and at times over the past few years, over ten percent of the federal bench has sat vacant. Many nominations linger in the Senate for months, even years. All the while, the judiciary's caseload grows. Advice and Dissent explores the state of the nation's federal judicial selection system—a process beset by deepening partisan polarization, obstructionism, and deterioration of the practice of advice and consent.

Focusing on the selection of judges for the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the U.S. District Courts, the true workhorses of the federal bench, Sarah A. Binder and Forrest Maltzman reconstruct the history and contemporary practice of advice and consent. They identify the political and institutional causes of conflict over judicial selection over the past sixty years, as well as the consequences of such battles over court appointments. Advice and Dissent offers proposals for reforming the institutions of judicial selection, advocating pragmatic reforms that seek to harness the incentives of presidents and senators together. How well lawmakers confront the breakdown in advice and consent will have lasting consequences for the institutional capacity of the U.S. Senate and for the performance of the federal bench.

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