Saturday, May 14, 2005

Liar...Liar...Pants on Fire, Dirty Harry

Senator Harry Reid tells a whopper about the tradition of the filibuster:

"I welcome this debate," the minority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, said in a statement. "The time has come for Republican senators to decide whether they will abide by the rules of the Senate, or break those rules for the first time in 217 years of American history."

2005 minus 217 = 1788, so Reid is obviously claiming that the filibuster was part of the rules of the first Senate. Which, as we have previously seen in this paper by Gold and Gupta, is not true. The first Senate adopted the rule of the British Parliament that a majority could vote to cut off debate on a bill for the purpose of voting on it.

It appears that than an act of Aaron Burr, presiding over the Senate in 1806, inadvertently created the possibility of the filibuster by eliminating that, "previous question", rule. And it wasn't until the 1830s that a group of anti-Jacksonian Senators realized that that had the effect of allowing unlimited debate if even only one Senator wished to keep talking.

As the filibuster was used more often in the wake of the Civil War, many attempts at changing the rule were made, until finally in 1917 we got the first 'cloture' rule. Which has been changed several times over the years since. Senator Reid might want to read some of the arguments made by Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Robert Byrd on how to go about changing the rule:

In 1979, faced with a potential filibuster on his rules-change proposal, Senator
Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) raised the possibility that the U.S.
Constitution provides the majority with a method for overriding the
Senate’s cloture rule:

"The Constitution in article I, section 5, says that each House shall
determine the rules of its proceedings. Now we are at the
beginning of Congress. This Congress is not obliged to be bound
by the dead hand of the past.

". . . .The first Senate, which met in 1789, approved 19 rules by a
majority vote. Those rules have been changed from time to time . .
. . So the Members of the Senate who met in 1789 and approved
that first body of rules did not for one moment think, or believe, or
pretend, that all succeeding Senates would be bound by that
Senate. . . . It would be just as reasonable to say that one Congress
can pass a law providing that all future laws have to be passed by
two-thirds vote. Any Member of this body knows that the next
Congress would not heed that law and would proceed to change it
and would vote repeal of it by majority vote."

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