Politics or Principle?: Filibustering in the United States Senate


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 in fulfilling its role on the eve of the twenty-first century? The authors examine the evolution of the rules governing Senate debate, analyze the consequences of these rules, and evaluate reform proposals....
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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 in fulfilling its role on the eve of the twenty-first century? 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 that differentiates the Senate from the House of Representatives; that the Senate's tradition as a deliberative body requires unlimited debate; that the filibuster was once reserved for a few issues of the utmost national importance; that few measures are actually killed by filibuster; and that senators resist changing the rules because of a principled commitment to deliberation. In reappraising 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, reducing the number of votes required to end debate while increasing the amount of time for senators to debate controversial bills. Reform that is consistent with the Senate's unique size and responsibilities is possible, they suggest.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Many Americans of a certain age may remember the filibuster as Jimmy Stewart's final courageous act in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but the real significance of the filibuster is rarely appreciated and frequently misunderstood in American politics. In this excellent study, the authors (political science, Univ. of Minnesota) provide readers with everything they might ever need to know about the history, use, and effectiveness of the filibuster. Not since Franklin L. Burdette's Filibuster in the Senate was published in 1940 has this subject been treated to such a comprehensive and intelligent analysis. For example, the authors, employing statistical means, test the proposition that contemporary resort to the filibuster happens for more partisan motives and for more trivial issues than at any other time in the Senate's history, and discover that this is not the case. Overall, this is a fine book that any student of Congress should read.Thomas J. Baldino, Wilkes Univ. Lib., Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
From the Publisher

"The filibuster has become so encrusted with myth, anecdote, and self-serving interpretation that it tends to be appraised in either demonic or sentimental terms. In this book, Binder and Smith present a hard and methodologically impecable study that is one of the most satisfying examinations of any aspect of the legislative process that I have read in recent years. It is a superb piece of work." —Ross K. Baker, Rutgers University

"With their clear-eyed analysis, Binder and Smith have succeeded in stripping away the layers of myth and misunderstanding that have shrouded the filibuster's role in American politics, and exposed it for what it unfortunately has become: a procedural straitjacket placed on the will of the American people. The book and the balanced, thoughtfully conceived reforms it advocates are long overdue and should be required reading for the next Senate." —Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, United States Senator, Connecticut

"Finally, a book that thoroughly examines the effects of Senate rules and institutions on political behavior and policy. This well-written, admirably documented book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the U.S. Senate. I highly recommend it." —Mathew D. McCubbins, University of California, San Diego

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815709510
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1996
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,256,621
  • Lexile: 1570L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet 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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Table of Contents

1 The Politics and Principle of the Filibuster 1
2 The Original versus the Traditional Senate 29
3 Senate Tradition Revisited 53
4 Politics, Principle, and the Trivialization of the Filibuster 83
5 The Filibuster and the Little-Harm Thesis 127
6 Senate Support for Limits on Debate 161
7 The Past and Future of the Senate 197
Notes 219
Index 243
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  • Posted April 11, 2010

    Essential Reading!

    I recently learned about this book. It was originally published in 1996 (this paperback copy was printed in 1997), but was discussed in a recent TV interview. The occasion was the weekend television broadcast of "BOOKtv" which is part of the C-SPAN2 network (check your local cable listings for channel). During regular seesions of the U.S. Senate, this channel shows the Senate, Live, from gavel to gavel.

    But on the weekends, unless the Senate is doing something special, C-SPAN2 becomes BOOKtv. This is a 48-hour non-stop presentation of appearances by authors (non-fiction) as they speak about their latest books, whether in small bookstores across the Nation; or in a one-one setting, either on-stage or in a radio studio; or as part of a large gathering of authors, such as at a large book festival in one of the states.

    This book's author, Susan A. Binder, was shown in an interview as she spoke about the history of the Fillibuster as it's used in the U.S. Senate. What surprised me, right off-the-bat, was to learn that, when the Constitution first went into effect in 1789, both the House of Representatives and the Senate had the same set of rules. Rules that included what was known as the Termination of Debate motion. That's how they decided to stop talking about a Bill, and actually vote on it - to turn it into a law.

    For some reason (read the book), in the 1800's, the Senate decided that their Official Rule Book had become too cluttered. So they cleaned it out, getting rid of what they had determined to be unnecessary stuff. The right to do that is in the Constitution:

    Article I, Section 5, Paragraph 2, states -

    "Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member."

    Thus was born what eventually became known as the Filibuster. Not gonna tell you where that word comes from (hint: think Dutch), but that wasn't the term used in the actual Rule Book.

    But that's part of the rest of the story . . .

    . . . maybe you've noticed the recent controversy over that "Reconciliation" rule that the Senate recently used to successfully pass the new Health Care Reform (HCR) Law.

    There were a lot of objections from the Republican side about using this procedure to avoid having to go through the "Cloture" process (oh, be sure to read how THAT word came about) in order to get the legislation passed.

    But this book will give you a really good understanding of how the Filibuster originally came about; and, more importantly, why all those complaints you hear from those same senators and representatives about how they wished "the system" could be reformed, are in fact the very people who keep this stuff from being reformed!

    Read the book, and learn something . . .

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