Politics or Principle?: Filibustering in the United States Senate

Politics or Principle?: Filibustering in the United States Senate

by Sarah A. Binder, Steven S. Smith
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780815709510
Publisher:
Brookings Institution Press
Publication date:
12/28/1996
Pages:
264
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Lexile:
1570L (what's this?)

Related Subjects

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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