Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Connecticut Compromise in Action

[Strom Thurmond filibustering the 1957 Civil Rights bill]
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which at the time was only a constitutional convention, the small states feared a federal government dominated by the big states. The big states thought it only fair that representation be by population.

After much wrangling, now called Debate, they settled on the Connecticut Compromise. The House of Representatives was to be elected by the people and apportioned by population. The Senate was to be elected by the state legislatures, two by each state. This arrangement now appears in Article 1 of the Constitution.

In 1911, during the Progressive Era, the 17th Amendment changed this to election of senators by the people of each state, but affirmed that each state would continue to have two senators regardless of population.

The results of the Connecticut Compromise today are that the ten largest states have half the US population but only 20 senators out of 100. The twenty largest states have 70% of the population and 40 senators, not even enough to break a filibuster. 77% of the population have half the votes, 23% the other half. California, the largest state, has as many people as the 20 smallest states combined. They have 40 senators; we have 2.

Populations of small states tend to be more rural, more conservative, more religious, less educated, more Republican, and more white than big state urban populations.

The Senate has a rule that a supermajority of 60 votes are needed to end debate on a measure though only 51 are needed to pass it. "End debate" is a euphemism for breaking a filibuster(defeating a measure by preventing it from coming to a vote). Until 1975 a two thirds supermajority was required to end debate.

Thus the Senate, in which a majority of the senators are elected by a minority of the people, can be obstructed by a minority of the senators. Such a minority within a minority is what, a superminority?

I read this remarkable paragraph in Wikipedia,

Current U.S. practice

Budget bills are governed under special rules called "reconciliation" which do not allow filibusters. Reconciliation once only applied to bills that would reduce the budget deficit, but since 1996 it has been used for all matters related to budget issues.

A filibuster can be defeated by the majority party if they leave the debated issue on the agenda indefinitely, without adding anything else. Indeed, Strom Thurmond's own attempt to filibuster the Civil Rights Act was defeated when Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield refused to refer any further business to the Senate, which required the filibuster to be kept up indefinitely. Instead, the opponents were all given a chance to speak, and the matter eventually was forced to a vote. Thurmond's afore-mentioned stall holds the record for the longest filibuster in U.S. Senate history at 24 hours, 37 minutes.

Even if a filibuster attempt is unsuccessful, the process takes valuable floor time. In recent years the majority has preferred to avoid filibusters by moving to other business when a filibuster is threatened and attempts to achieve cloture have failed.

In the modern filibuster, the senators trying to block a vote do not have to hold the floor and continue to speak as long as there is a quorum. In the past, when one senator became exhausted, another would need to take over to continue the filibuster. Ultimately, the filibuster could be exhausted by a majority who would even sleep in cots outside the Senate Chamber to exhaust the filibusterers. Today, the minority just advises the majority leader that the filibuster is on. All debate on the bill is stopped until either cloture is voted by three-fifths (now 60 votes) of the Senate. Some modern Senate critics have called for a return to the old dramatic endurance contest but that would inconvenience all senators who would have to stay in session 24/7 until the filibuster is broken.[27]

It would inconvenience them? That is why we don't have a medical insurance reform bill? Because it would inconvenience the senators? Wikipedia articles,including this one, generally seem pretty level-headed and reasonable. But I cannot believe that that is all there is to it. But that is what the current practice seems to be. There is no C-Span footage of senators making fools of themselves reading endless nonsense into the Congressional Record so as to stay at the podium indefinitely, as there was during civil rights era filibusters. Just bloodless vote-counting without the filibusterers being forced to filibuster.

With this week's election in Massachusetts, the issue has come sharply into focus. With the election of a Republican to fill the late Ted Kennedy's senate seat, the Democrats now have 59 senators, one short of the number needed to vote cloture.

In the civil rights era when a two-thirds majority was required to break a filibuster, filibusters were eventually broken and the Civil Rights bills of 1964 and 1968, and the Voting Rights bill of 1969 were all passed over bitter Southern opposition.

The ability of the majority of the people of the United States to express their will and, one might say, to govern themselves, has come down to the nicety of whether filibusterers must literally filibuster or can do it by senatorial courtesy.

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