Don’t Blame the Founding Fathers

With the recent government shutdown, the pundits are working overtime providing explanations for the mess in Washington.  One of the more popular is the Senate’s archaic rules.  Our old two-party system with its primaries are just too divisive, making compromise more difficult if not impossible. This implies the work of the founding fathers is somehow standing in the way of a functioning government.  In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There is nothing in our constitution about Senate Rules, political parties or primaries. All have at best a mixed record.

In order to have a budget and pay our national bills we presently need 60 votes in the Senate thereby handing veto power over to the minority.  Sounds as if this was one of the check and balances embodied in the Constitution.  Not so. This is just a rule of the Senate itself.  The idea of speaking endlessly to delay or defeat certain legislation goes all the way back to the Roman Senate. Our Senate in its wisdom instituted the rule in 1806 that debate on an issue could only ended by cloture vote of generally 60% of the Senate.  Super majorities were frowned on by both Madison and Hamilton as one of the great weaknesses of the Constitutions ‘s ineffectual predecessor, the Articles of Confederation.  In any case, it was never used until 1837 and then rarely for our first two centuries.  The fact that you had to actually talk for endless hours if not days, probably made it an unattractive option.  One only has to see the worn down and haggard Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s classic movie”Mr. Smith goes to Washington” to know what a filibuster was in those days.  It was only in the 1970s and later the rules changed to where the mere threat of filibuster brings about vote for cloture needing 60% “super majority” (60 out of the 100 senators).  The reasoning was either way the Senate could move on to other business rather than being tied up with endless speech making.

Continue reading