Is the Filibuster Constitutional?
With the help of the President, Democrats in Congress were able to pass historic healthcare-reform legislation in spite of—and thanks to—the significant structural obstacles presented by the Senate’s arcane parliamentary rules. After the passage of the bill, the current political climate appears to require sixty votes for the passage of any major legislation, a practice which many argue is unsustainable.
In Is The Filibuster Constitutional?, Professors Josh Chafetz and Michael Gerhardt debate the constitutionality of the Senate’s cloture rules by looking to the history of those rules in the United States and elsewhere. Professor Chafetz argues that the cloture rules represent an unconstitutional principle of entrenchment and highlights the absurdity by analogizing to a hypothetical rule requiring a supermajority to unseat an incumbent senator, which would surely not be tolerated. Chafetz concludes that historical practice fails to justify obstructionist tactics and that any constitutionally conscientious senator has a duty to reject the filibuster as it currently operates.
Professor Gerhardt attributes the Senate’s behavior to the lack of a majority committed to curtailing abuses of Senate procedure. He argues that the weaknesses of the traditional arguments against the filibuster underscore the filibuster’s inherent constitutionality. Gerhardt points out that a majority of Senate seats is never subject to election at the same time and that the Constitution does not forbid, but instead expressly permits, the Senate to draft internal procedures. Failing to find an anti-entrenchment principle implied in the constitutional scheme, Gerhardt groups the filibuster with other Senate traditions—such as holds and bitter partisanship—and finds that the solution to unsatisfactory behavior in the legislature is, and always has been, accountability at the ballot box.
Opening Statement by Josh Chafetz† — The Filibuster and the Supermajoritarian Difficulty
Suppose that the Senate, using its combined powers to “Judge...the Elections...of its own Members,” U.S. Const. art. I, § 5, cl. 1, and to “determine the Rules of its Proceedings,” id., cl. 2, adopted the following rule: “In any election to this body in which a current Senator seeks reelection, the current Senator shall be deemed reelected unless sixty percent or more of the duly qualified voters cast their votes for another candidate.” Would this rule be constitutional?
The Seventeenth Amendment provides that “the Senate... shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof,” and that “[t]he electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures,” but it does not say that the candidate with the most votes must win. U.S. Const. amend. XVII. Nor does anything in Article I—or anywhere else in the Constitution, for that matter—prescribe majority rule for congressional elections.
Yet it seems clear that this hypothetical supermajoritarian rule would violate some of our most deeply held constitutional values. Our Constitution, written in the name of “We the People,” cannot countenance this sort of self-entrenchment by incumbents. That is to say, we understand the concept of an election of representatives to include within it a structural principle of majoritarianism. Our elected representatives cannot create a new voting rule that substantially entrenches the status quo against change. For them to do so would be for them no longer to be “elected by the people.”
My contention in this Debate is that the Senate filibuster, as it currently operates, is strikingly similar to the hypothetical rule described above. Just as we must understand the word “elected” in the Seventeenth Amendment to contain a principle of majoritarianism for election to Congress, we must also understand the word “passed” in Article I, Section 7 to contain a principle of majoritarianism for legislating in Congress.
I should emphasize at the outset that I am interested not simply in the formal rules governing Senate debate but in the way that the filibuster in fact operates in the modern Senate. Moreover, I do not argue that any procedural device that delays the implementation of majority will at any given moment is unconstitutional. All procedural requirements delay the immediate implementation of majority will. Structural majoritarianism is a matter of degree, and precise lines between acceptable delays in implementing majority will and unacceptable defiance of majority will are hard to draw. Nevertheless, a constitutionally conscientious Senator is obligated to try.
The formal rules governing the filibuster are rather simple: a filibuster occurs when a Senator or group of Senators takes advantage of the Senate tradition of unlimited debate in order to delay or obstruct a measure. The only way to end debate and force a vote on most measures before the Senate is to invoke cloture. Senate Rule XXII(2) provides that, if sixteen Senators sign a cloture petition, then on the next business day, the presiding officer will ask whether “it [is] the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close?” Standing Rules of the Senate, R. XXII(2), as reprinted in S. Doc. No. 106-15, at 15-16 (2000). The cloture motion itself is not debatable; therefore, a vote will be taken immediately. If three-fifths of the Senators “duly sworn and chosen” vote “yes,” then no business is in order other than the matter on which cloture has been invoked, and debate on that matter is limited to thirty hours, at the end of which a vote must be taken. Id. There is one exception: invoking cloture on a motion to amend the Senate rules requires two-thirds of the Senators present and voting rather than three-fifths of the Senators sworn and chosen. Id. Moreover, because the Senate, unlike the House, is considered a “continuing body,” see, e.g., Eastland v. U.S. Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491, 512 (1975) (“the House, unlike the Senate, is not a continuing body”), its rules never expire. But see Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl, Burying the “Continuing Body” Theory of the Senate, 95 Iowa L. Rev. (forthcoming 2010), available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1427456 (presenting a number of arguments against the “continuing body” theory). Senate Rule XXII exists in perpetuity, unless it is amended—and amending it would almost certainly involve invoking cloture, which would require a two-thirds vote.
This formalist account of Senate procedure, however, must be supplemented with an understanding of how the filibuster has actually operated in recent years. Simply put, cloture has now effectively become a requirement for passage of any significant measure. Even a casual glance at the history of cloture motions makes this apparent. When the cloture motion was first introduced into Senate rules in 1917, it required a two-thirds vote to pass. See Catherine Fisk & Erwin Chemerinsky, The Filibuster, 49 Stan. L. Rev. 181, 198 (1997). From the 66th Congress (1919–1920) to the 91st Congress (1969–1970), there were never more than seven cloture motions filed in a single Congress, and cloture was never invoked more than three times. U.S. Senate, Senate Action on Cloture Motions, http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/reference/cloture_motions/clotureCounts.htm (last visited Apr. 1, 2010). It can hardly be said that no contentious legislation came up during this fifty-year period—indeed, it is worth noting that even though Democrats never had a filibuster-proof majority during the 73rd Congress (1933–1934), that Congress managed to pass much of the major legislation of the First New Deal without a single cloture petition having been filed. See id.
A rise in filibusters in the early 1970s led to the amendment that gave Rule XXII its present form. From the 94th Congress (1975–1976) to the 102nd Congress (1991–1992), the number of cloture petitions filed ranged from twenty-three to fifty-nine, and cloture was never invoked more than twenty-two times in a Congress. Id. The number increased between the 103rd Congress (1993–1994) and the 109th Congress (2005–2006), with between sixty-two and eighty-two motions filed and cloture invoked between nine and thirty-four times. Id. And then came the 110th Congress (2007–2008): a whopping 139 cloture motions were filed, with cloture invoked sixty-one times. The 111th Congress is on course for even higher numbers—as of this writing, there have been eighty-two cloture motions filed, and cloture has been invoked forty-four times. Id.
A number of factors have contributed to the increased use of filibusters, including changes to procedural mechanisms (the creation of separate legislative “tracks” has allowed other Senate business to continue while one matter is being filibustered, thus lowering the cost of a filibuster), see Barry Friedman & Andrew D. Martin, A One-Track Senate, N.Y. Times, Mar. 10, 2010, at A27; institutional culture (a decline in senatorial bonhomie has increased the willingness of Senators to engage in obstructionism), see Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Ornstein, The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track 146-48 (2006); and the national political map (partisan realignment has made it more difficult to attract bipartisan support for anything), see generally Earl Black & Merle Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans (2002).
Regardless of the precise constellation of causes of this increase in filibusters, two things are clear: the filibuster is no longer reserved only for issues of unusual importance, nor is it used simply to extend debate on an issue. A Senator who intends to vote against final passage of a bill need no longer separately justify her decision to vote against cloture. As a functional matter, it can now be said that it requires sixty votes to pass a piece of legislation in the Senate—or, as Roy Edroso eloquently put it on a Village Voice blog the day after Republican Scott Brown won a special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat, “Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate.” Posting of Roy Edroso to Runnin’ Scared, Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate, http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2010/01/scott_brown_win.php (Jan. 20, 2010); see also David R. Mayhew, Supermajority Rule in the U.S. Senate, 36 PS: Pol. Sci. & Pol. 31, 31 (2003) (noting the widespread perception that sixty votes is the threshold for Senate passage).
The question, then, is this: is a constitutionally conscientious Senator obligated to reject a system in which a supermajority is required to pass a bill and an even larger supermajority is required to alter that supermajority requirement? I think the answer is “yes.” As Jed Rubenfeld has persuasively argued, “[w]hat it means for a bill to ‘pass’ the House or Senate is not open for definition by the House or Senate. It is constitutionally fixed by the implicit majority-rule meaning of ‘passed.’” Jed Rubenfeld, Rights of Passage: Majority Rule in Congress, 46 Duke L.J. 73, 83 (1996). Of course, the Constitution itself imposes supermajority requirements in some cases. See Michael J. Gerhardt, The Constitutionality of the Filibuster, 21 Const. Comment. 445, 455 n.38 (2004) (listing the seven situations in which the Constitution requires a supermajority vote). But where the Constitution does not specify otherwise, the word “passed”—like the word “elected”—should be understood to prescribe majority rule. It would be odd to operate with a majoritarian assumption when voting for representatives but not when those representatives themselves vote. After all, if Congress can require sixty votes to alter the status quo, then why not ninety-nine? Why can it not declare its own legislation unrepealable? Surely that sort of entrenchment of legislation is every bit as antithetical to popular sovereignty as the entrenchment of legislators in the hypothetical at the beginning of this Opening Statement.
Supporters of the filibuster may, at this point, turn to history. They will say that the United States has a long history of unlimited debate and that this history supports the constitutionality of the filibuster. See Gerhardt, supra, at 451-55. But of course today’s filibuster is not about unlimited debate—indeed, it is not about debate at all. It is simply about permanent minority obstruction. And that has a somewhat lesser history. The use of unlimited debate solely for the purposes of obstruction was almost unknown in the British House of Commons until Charles Stewart Parnell was elected in 1875. Parnell, “who employed parliamentary obstruction to block all government business so that Irish reform would be effected,” can be understood as “the real founder of wilful or conscious obstruction” in the House of Commons. Geddes W. Rutherford, Some Aspects of Parliamentary Obstruction, 22 Sewanee Rev. 166, 174 (1914); see also 1 Josef Redlich, The Procedure of the House of Commons 138-40 (A. Ernest Steinthal trans., 1908). The reaction to this new method of obstruction was swift: in 1882, the House of Commons adopted by majority vote (indeed, by a slim majority of 304 to 260) a resolution introduced by William Gladstone giving the Speaker the authority to inform the House “that [a] subject has been adequately discussed.” 137 H.C. Jour. 505 (Nov. 10, 1882). Thereafter, a majority could vote to end debate and force a vote on the issue in question. Id. In Britain, once the power of unlimited debate came to be used for long-term obstruction, it was quickly taken away.
In the United States, too, the history is not unambiguously pro-filibuster. Jefferson, the great parliamentarian of the early Republic and President of the Senate from 1797 to 1801, wrote, “No one is to speak impertinently or beside the question, superfluously, or tediously.” Thomas Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate in the United States 27 (Gov’t Printing Office 1993) (1801). Indeed, the rules adopted by the First Senate provided that the presiding officer could call a member to order, at which point the member “shall sit down.” 1 Sen. J. 12, 13 (1789). True, dilatory tactics were first used in 1790, but only to delay a vote long enough that an ill Senator—who happened to be the decisive vote—could participate. See Fisk & Chemerinsky, supra, at 187-88 (describing the incident). This was a use of the filibuster in the service of majoritarianism, not in derogation of it. Over the next sixteen years, the “previous question” motion provided for in the First Senate’s rules, see 1 Sen. J. 12, 13 (1789), was used on four occasions to end debate. Richard R. Beeman, Unlimited Debate in the Senate: The First Phase, 83 Pol. Sci. Q. 419, 421 (1968). When the “previous question” motion was abolished in 1806, it was because of “the belief that the rule’s infrequent use made it unnecessary,” not because of any desire to allow unlimited minority obstruction. Id.
The great nineteenth-century champion of the use of unlimited debate for obstructionist purposes was none other than John C. Calhoun. See id. at 421-31; Fisk & Chemerinsky, supra, at 189-92. And as Fisk and Chemerinsky note, the nineteenth century’s smaller volume of legislation allowed the majority to wait out filibusters so that “almost every filibustered measure before 1880 was eventually passed.” Fisk & Chemerinsky, supra, at 195. When that ceased to be the case, the Senate adopted the first cloture rule in 1917. Id. at 198. For most of the twentieth century, of course, the filibuster was largely used to obstruct civil rights legislation. Id. at 199. John C. Calhoun and Strom Thurmond are indeed precedents for the power of a minority to indefinitely obstruct legislation in the Senate—but are they precedents that filibuster proponents are proud to claim, or does their precedential value partake more of Plessy than of Brown?
Constitutional structure cannot support the filibuster as it exists today any more than it can support the hypothetical rule with which this Opening Statement began. And history establishes no unambiguous right to obstruct. Of course, these observations raise at least as many questions as they answer. All procedural rules delay the implementation of majority will—how much delay is too much? All rulemaking has at least something of an entrenching effect—how much entrenchment is too much? These questions do not admit of easy answers, and they are certainly not suitable for judicial resolution. See Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few: Legislative Privilege and Democratic Norms in the British and American Constitutions 57-59 (2007) (arguing that each chamber’s internal rules are generally nonjusticiable). But the fact that courts underenforce these constitutional norms makes it all the more important for constitutionally conscientious members of Congress to take them very seriously. See Paul Brest, The Conscientious Legislator’s Guide to Constitutional Interpretation, 27 Stan. L. Rev. 585, 586 (1975) (arguing that judicial restraint in addressing certain constitutional issues does not “suggest that the legislature should exercise restraint in assessing the constitutionality of its own product”); Lawrence Gene Sager, Fair Measure: The Legal Status of Underenforced Constitutional Norms, 91 Harv. L. Rev. 1212, 1240 (1978) (“[T]he legislature is permitted to refine... [certain constitutional] notions beyond the capacity of the judiciary to do so.”). Senators will have to draw their own lines and devise their own remedies. But whatever line they draw, the filibuster as practiced today must be on the wrong side.
†Assistant Professor of Law, Cornell Law School
Rebuttal by Michael J. Gerhardt† — The Filibuster and the Conscientious Senate
My friend Professor Chafetz never disappoints, and his Opening Statement is as thoughtful and novel a critique of the filibuster as any I have read. His principal argument is that the filibuster has been increasingly used in violation of Article I, Section 7’s “principle of majoritarianism for legislating in Congress.” While I do not agree with this argument, I do believe that the lawmaking process within the Senate has become frustrating–albeit not because of the filibuster or something unconstitutional. The problem is that the Senate lacks a majority genuinely committed to challenging abuses of Senate procedures and to ruling on many issues.
Professor Chafetz acknowledges but does not dawdle over either of the conventional arguments against the constitutionality of the filibuster. Nevertheless, they are worth examining briefly because understanding why they are wrong underscores the constitutionality of the filibuster. The first objection is that the filibuster as a delaying mechanism is unconstitutional because it is not specifically authorized by the Constitution. (I am not sure whether Professor Chafetz agrees with this objection because he does not argue that any procedural device that delays the implementation of majority will at any given moment is unconstitutional.) The first problem with this objection is that Article I, Section 5 expressly vests the House and the Senate each with the authority to “determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” U.S. Const., art. I, § 5, cl. 2. The Framers were not averse to establishing specific procedural requirements in the House or Senate (such as quorum requirements for doing business or requirements that senators be on oath or affirmation in impeachment trials), but in Section 5 they specified no limitations on the procedures that the House or Senate may devise for its proceedings. See id. This Section plainly grants to the Senate plenary authority to devise procedures for internal governance, and the filibuster is a rule for debate. Second, historical practices overwhelmingly support the filibuster’s constitutionality. See generally Michael J. Gerhardt, The Constitutionality of the Filibuster, 21 Const. Comm. 445, 451-55 (2004). Professor Chafetz acknowledges that the filibuster, in one form or another, has been a feature of the Senate since 1790. It is one of many countermajoritarian procedures, including unanimous-consent requirements governing what comes to the floor for consideration in the Senate.
The second conventional objection to the filibuster is that Senate Rule XXII, which allows a filibuster of a motion to amend the Rule and requires a supermajority to end any such filibuster, Standing Rules of the Senate, R. XXII, as reprinted in S. Doc. No. 106-15, at 15-17 (2000), is unconstitutional. The argument (about which I take Professor Chafetz to be agnostic) is that Rule XXII violates an anti-entrenchment principle implied in Article I that bars a present majority from binding the hands of a future one to act as it pleases with respect to any legislative matter.
There is, however, no such principle. To begin with, Article I says nothing about, much less anything against, entrenchment, and Senate Rule XXII’s procedures for amending Rule XXII are consistent with the plenary authority expressly given to the Senate to determine the rules for its proceedings. Second, historical practices amply uphold Rule XXII’s entrenchment. The Senate has consistently stood behind this Rule and consistently required that efforts to amend it be done in accordance with the Senate’s rules, including the supermajority voting requirements set forth therein. Third, Rule XXII is one of many standing rules in the Senate that have become entrenched because of the Senate’s structure. Article I, Section 3 has structured the Senate “so that one third may be chosen every second Year.” U.S. Const., art. I, § 3, cl. 2. The Senate has been designed, in other words, so that every election cycle, only a third of its seats are up for election. This design makes the Senate unique among legislatures as a “continuing body” because two-thirds of its members carry their terms over from one legislative session to the next. Indeed, in dicta, the Supreme Court has said as much on three separate occasions.
The anti-entrenchment principle presumes that entrenchment is illegal because it prevents a newly elected majority from adopting whatever rules it prefers, but in the Senate there never is a majority of seats subject to election at any one time. There is thus no group in the Senate in a position analogous to the full membership of the House, in which every two years there is, by design, a genuinely new majority that is elected. Professor Chafetz’s concern is with majority rule, but if a majority changes in the Senate it is because of the outcomes of elections involving only one-third of the seats. I know of no constitutional principle investing a third of a legislative body with special power to remake the body itself.
This brings us to Professor Chafetz’s principal concern that “cloture has now effectively become a requirement for passage of any significant measure.” Professor Chafetz is right that the filibuster has been increasingly used to obstruct legislative action, but it is a mistake to infer any constitutional violation from this obstruction. First, filibusters are not just directed at bills. Many are directed at judicial and other nominations. Professor Chafetz is relying on the language of Article I, Section 7 for the basis of the “principle of majoritarianism,” but this language only pertains to bills or resolutions requiring presidential signatures—not to presidential nominations. One must look elsewhere for textual support to constitutionalize majority rule on nominations, but there is none.
Second, Article I, Section 7 speaks only to what may happen once a bill reaches the floor of the House or Senate. It says nothing about the process through which a bill—or any other matter that may be filibustered—may reach the Senate floor. Article I, Section 5 obviously governs that process, while Article I, Section 7 governs something different—the procedures after passage of a bill in the House or Senate.
Third, the filibuster is one of many Senate procedures that may preclude final floor action. When committees reject nominations or committee chairs refuse to schedule hearings or votes on nominations or other legislative matters, their decisions are effectively final. Yet none of these procedures violates Article I, Section 7. The fact that a bill or nomination is stymied through the tactical use of procedures does not mean that Article I, Section 7 is violated: it means the Senate has followed its own rules.
Nor does Article I establish a time limit by which a matter must be resolved in the Senate. It is impossible to square a “principle of majoritarianism” with the fact that sometimes bills or nominations make it through committee with little or no time left for the Senate to act. I doubt Professor Chafetz is arguing that this principle of majoritarianism requires that a bill or nomination must come to the Senate floor even if no time is left for the Senate to act. American history is replete with bills dying in this manner.
Fourth, majoritarianism is not a fixed constitutional principle. In upholding a state constitutional and statutory requirement that certain changes not be made in the state constitution unless approved by at least sixty percent of the voters in a referendum election, the Supreme Court declared, “Certainly any departure from strict majority rule gives disproportionate power to the minority. But, there is nothing in the language of the Constitution, our history, or our cases that requires that a majority always prevail on every issue.” Gordon v. Lance, 403 U.S. 1, 6 (1971). This ruling underscores the fact that while there may be constitutional limits to the Senate’s internal rulemaking authority, mandatory majority rule is not one of them.
The deliberative process within the Senate is not, however, without problems. Among them is the two-track system for filibusters. I agree that silent filibusters—those that have the effect of deflecting business simply as a result of being threatened—are problematic. They are problematic because they obscure one of the most important checks on abuses of the filibuster: the political accountability of the members of the Senate. One cannot, or at least I will not, argue that there was anything noble in filibustering civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s; however, at least those filibusters had to be above radar and the people making them were politically accountable. The two-track system provides the wrong incentives to senators: it allows them to obstruct Senate business but without paying much, if any, political cost for doing so.
Beyond silent filibusters, there are two other problems impeding majoritarianism in the Senate. One is the problem of holds. A longstanding practice of the Senate is the entitlement of each senator to ask the majority leader to place a temporary, anonymous hold on virtually any piece of legislative business headed to the floor. Such holds (sometimes done tag team by members of the opposition party) have been used to obstruct more than a few of President Obama’s nominations. This obstruction is often done merely to make the President or Senate Democrats look bad. It is, however, telling that once the Democrats challenged the holds and threatened filibusters against some judicial nominations, the latter were approved unanimously or nearly unanimously. (Two recent examples are the unanimous confirmations of Barbara Keenan to the Fourth Circuit and Rogeriee Thompson to the First Circuit.) An obvious difficulty with taming abusive holds is that the holds are done anonymously, so it is practically impossible to hold Senators politically accountable for abusing their hold privileges. It is up to Senators to keep each other honest in their deployment of holds.
Another, more important reason for obstruction in the Senate is the absence of a majority committed to ruling on everything. As reflected in the unanimous confirmations of Judges Keenan and Thompson, the votes of eleven Republican senators for President Obama’s jobs bill, and the support of nine Republican Senators for Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, party fidelity does not invariably preclude the Senate from acting. But, in order for there to be obstruction, there has to be something to obstruct, and on many issues there is no working majority. In their 2006 study of the filibuster, Gregory Wawro and Eric Schickler suggested that “the great irony [is] that filibusters have become costless for the minority because the costs to the majority of engaging in wars of attrition have become prohibitively high.” Gregory J. Wawro & Eric Schickler, Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the U.S. Senate 263 (2006). They concluded that
Id. at 281. The numbers within the Senate might sometimes fool us into thinking there is a majority disposed to rule. The fact that for the past year Democrats had sixty seats in the Senate and that Republicans had fifty-five seats from 2004–2006 did not ensure that in either period there was a majority committed or prepared to consistently ruling the Senate. Where there is a Senate majority determined to act, it is nearly impossible to stop, as recently demonstrated in the fact that the opposition of every Republican in the Senate did not prevent the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Pub. L. No. 111-148 (2010). But sometimes neither party controls a majority of Senate seats, and sometimes there are no working majorities on certain issues. The Constitution cannot establish a majority where there is none.
The solution to this scenario is not judicial review or deviation from the rules in order to amend them but rather the electoral process. Using elections to hold public officials accountable and not changing the rules in the middle of the game are both among our longstanding traditions. While the upcoming mid-term elections might not change the Senate’s leadership, it is through such elections that the will to govern may be fortified or eroded.
†Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law & Director of the UNC Center on Law and Government, UNC-Chapel Hill
Closing Statement by Josh Chafetz —
Michael Gerhardt is one of the smartest and most knowledgeable constitutional scholars around; anyone who disagrees with Professor Gerhardt about an issue of constitutional law would do well to reexamine her own views. It is with a sigh of relief, then, that I realize that Professor Gerhardt and I agree about the filibuster significantly more than we disagree. First, we agree that the increased use of the filibuster has more or less made cloture a de facto requirement for the passage of most bills through the Senate. Second, we agree that, in Professor Gerhardt’s words, lawmaking in the Senate “has become frustrating.” Third, we agree that neither judicial review nor the flouting of Senate rules is the appropriate response (although I would add the caveat that, just as “a legislative act contrary to the constitution is not law,” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803), so too a resolution contrary to the Constitution cannot create a binding Senate rule). And fourth, we agree that the two-track system, the increase in the use of “holds,” and the sometime timidity of the Senate majority are significant problems (though happily, the recent passage of healthcare-reform legislation suggests that the majority may have taken this latter message to heart).
We do, however, differ on at least one key point: I think that the filibuster as currently practiced is unconstitutional, and Professor Gerhardt does not. This point of disagreement is an important one, because if I am right, a Senator who takes her oath seriously, see U.S. Const. art. VI, § 3, is obligated to take steps to alter or abolish the filibuster so as to make Senate rules constitutional. If Professor Gerhardt is right, then Senators need only make policy calculations about the filibuster. With some trepidation, then, I am compelled to press my point.
Professor Gerhardt begins with a textual argument: the Rules of Proceedings Clause, id. art. I, § 5, cl. 2, contains “no limitations on the procedures that the House or Senate may devise for its proceedings.” This, of course, is true, but it cannot be the end of the matter. Surely, the Rules of Proceedings Clause is subject to limitations laid out elsewhere in the Constitution. I take it, for example, that a Senate rule banning practitioners of certain religions from serving on committees would be an unconstitutional violation of the Religious Test Clause, id. art. VI, § 3, even thought it falls within the ambit of the Rules of Proceedings Clause. Likewise, the hypothetical with which I began my Opening Statement posited an internal Senate rule to govern the Senate’s resolution of disputed elections. Specifically, the hypothetical rule provided that an incumbent would be deemed reelected unless a challenger received sixty percent or more of the vote. Professor Gerhardt does not respond to my hypothetical, but for those who share my conclusion that the hypothetical rule is unconstitutional, it establishes two important points. First, it makes it clear that there are constitutional limitations on each chamber’s powers under the Rules of Proceedings Clause—not every rule a chamber might devise is constitutional. And second, it suggests that the Senate’s rulemaking power might be limited by an implicit principle of majoritarianism—that the phrase “elected by the people” in the Seventeenth Amendment forbids the Senate from creating rules that require a supermajority for election to Congress. So, while it is true that the Rules of Proceedings Clause does not, by itself, limit the kinds of rules the Senate can make, other constitutional principles do. And in at least one case—my hypothetical—that limiting constitutional principle is an implicit guarantee of majority rule.
Of course, the mere fact that “elected by the people” in the Seventeenth Amendment seems to carry a requirement of majoritarianism does not necessarily mean that “passed” in Article I, Section 7 carries the same requirement. Here, Professor Gerhardt relies on both the long history of Senate filibusters and the fact that the filibuster is hardly alone among Senate procedures in frustrating majority will. But I remain unconvinced. As to the historical practice, I spent a good portion of my Opening Statement on the issue, and I will not rehash that discussion here. My conclusion there was that the filibuster as practiced today is qualitatively different from, and therefore cannot be justified by, the historical practice. Early filibusters may have been able to delay legislation, but they did not permanently obstruct it. When filibusters did begin to permanently obstruct legislation, the cloture rule was introduced (in 1917) and then made easier to invoke (in 1975). Only in the last few years has cloture become necessary on almost every piece of significant legislation.
Today, the filibuster operates as a standing requirement that important legislation (outside of the budget process) needs sixty votes to pass. This cannot be justified by the fact that a few Senators in 1790 kept the floor and stalled so that the absence of an ill colleague on a rainy day would not result in a bill’s passage. See Catherine Fisk & Erwin Chemerinsky, The Filibuster, 49 Stan. L. Rev. 181, 187-88 (1997) (describing the 1790 incident). Although that incident may sometimes be called a “filibuster,” it has very little in common with today’s filibuster. We should not be fooled by linguistic drift. Cf. In re Erickson, 815 F.2d 1090, 1092-93 (7th Cir. 1987) (“[I]f a change in language or function should cause a new name to be applied to [an old idea or practice]... it would be necessary to examine the function of the denotation....”).
Professor Gerhardt also suggests that the filibuster is just one of many antimajoritarian rules of legislative procedure—it cannot be unconstitutional unless they all are, the argument goes. Professor Gerhardt gives the examples of committee power, holds, and unanimous consent agreements as limits on majoritarianism. But, on closer examination, none of these results in the permanent minority obstruction of legislation the way today’s filibuster does. First, consider committees: Obviously, if a committee approves a measure, it still must go to the full chamber; there is nothing antimajoritarian about this. But, Professor Gerhardt says, when a committee disapproves a measure, it can effectively kill it. This overlooks the fact, however, that both chambers have mechanisms by which a determined majority can circumvent a hostile committee. In the House, that mechanism is a discharge petition, which requires the signatures of a majority of Representatives. See Congressional Quarterly, How Congress Works 86-87 (4th ed. 2008). In the Senate, there are two options. A bill can be introduced directly on the Senate floor, as was done with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, where the floor leaders sought to avoid getting bogged down in the Judiciary Committee chaired by Senator James Eastland, a Democrat from Mississippi. See Charles Whalen & Barbara Whalen, The Longest Debate: A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act 132-35 (1985). Alternatively, because the Senate does not require amendments to be germane, any member can offer a bill that is trapped in committee as an amendment to a bill that is already on the floor. See Congressional Quarterly, supra, at 108. Either way, the committee has been circumvented.
Holds are antimajoritarian, but only because they are parasitic on the filibuster. As Professor Gerhardt notes, the hold is an informal device whereby Senators anonymously ask the majority leader not to bring business to the floor for a certain period of time. Sometimes this is done for good reason (e.g., to accommodate Senators’ schedules or to allow more time for consideration of a measure); other times, members will serially file holds in an attempt to forestall any consideration of the measure. But the majority leader only respects holds of the second kind because of the possibility of a filibuster. In essence, a hold functions as the threat of a filibuster, should the matter be brought to the floor. Filibuster reform, then, would also be hold reform.
Finally, Professor Gerhardt points to the large amount of business done in the Senate by unanimous consent as evidence of widespread antimajoritarianism. But unanimous consent is, in the end, an expediting procedure. Absent unanimous consent, there remains a regular order of business, and matters can still be considered in this way. See Congressional Quarterly, supra, at 109-18. Unanimous consent agreements governing Senate debate are so popular precisely because they represent a precommitment by all Senators not to filibuster.
In short, the filibuster as practiced today requires a supermajority vote for the passage of most legislation. (Professor Gerhardt correctly notes that I am primarily interested in legislation. For most nominations, recess appointments can be used to circumvent filibusters. See U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 3; Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Obama Bypasses Senate Process, Filling 15 Posts, N.Y. Times, Mar. 28, 2010, at A1. For judicial nominations, I think the Senate’s refusal to vote may well violate its constitutional obligation to give “Advice and Consent.” U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 2.) Although other devices may slow or burden majority rule, no other device in Congress allows for permanent minority obstruction in this way. This makes today’s filibuster qualitatively different from the “filibusters” of early American history, and it also makes it qualitatively different from other procedural rules in Congress. In the end, and despite Professor Gerhardt’s thought-provoking and careful arguments to the contrary, I remain convinced that the closest analogue to today’s filibuster is the hypothetical—and unconstitutional—rule with which I began my Opening Statement.
then, is to be done? First, I wholeheartedly agree with Professor
Gerhardt’s suggestion, also made recently by Barry Friedman and Andrew
Martin, that abolition of the two-track system for filibusters would
be a step in the right direction. Barry Friedman & Andrew
D. Martin, A One-Track Senate, N.Y. Times, Mar. 10, 2010, at
A27. It would preserve the Senate’s tradition of unlimited
debate, while abolishing obstruction unrelated to debate.
A constitutionally conscientious Senator has a number of other options,
as well. At one extreme would be some version of the “nuclear
option”—either a ruling by the presiding officer (sustained by majority
vote) that the supermajority requirement for cloture is unconstitutional,
or a ruling by the presiding officer that the Senate is not a continuing
body, thus allowing the adoption of new rules (again, by majority vote)
at the beginning of the next Congress. One less extreme response
would be to institute a “declining filibuster,” whereby the number
of votes needed to invoke cloture on a measure would gradually decline
until a bare majority sufficed. See S. Res. 416, 111th Cong.
(2010) (pending resolution to amend Senate rules to create a declining
filibuster); Sen. Tom Harkin, Fixing the Filibuster, Huffington
Post, Feb. 12, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
What these proposals have in common is that they allow a determined majority to get its way—not immediately, but in the end. They therefore satisfy the structural majoritarianism principle of Article I. I think a constitutionally conscientious Senator could support any of these proposals (or, indeed, some combination of them). But despite Professor Gerhardt’s spirited defense of the filibuster’s constitutionality, I end my Closing Statement on the same note on which I ended my Opening Statement: a constitutionally conscientious Senator cannot support the practice of the filibuster as it currently exists.
Closing Statement by Michael J. Gerhardt —
Upon seeing Niagara Falls for the first time, Oscar Wilde reputedly remarked that “[i]t would be more impressive if it flowed the other way.” In his thoughtful, well-argued Opening and Closing Statements, Professor Chafetz has tried mightily to reverse the flow of constitutional support for the filibuster, but I believe his efforts are in vain. The filibuster still stands because its constitutional support is so strong. Professor Chafetz’s novel arguments might obscure the strength of this support as well as the fact that, even though they are longstanding, the arguments against the constitutionality of the filibuster have never prevailed in any forum, with the possible exception of the academy. As the history of the filibuster shows, the filibuster’s constitutional pedigree is sufficiently strong that if amended, it will be done—as it always has been done—in accordance with the Senate rules and, even then, as a reaction to enormous pressure from within the Senate and the American people.
Professor Chafetz’s first, strong push against the constitutionality of the filibuster is through his hypothetical Senate rule requiring that senators must be elected by at least sixty percent of the popular vote. He suggests that this hypothetical rule is unconstitutional for the same reason the filibuster is—namely, because each violates a constitutional principle of majoritarianism.
The analogy does not work, however, for several reasons. First, it obscures the fact that Article I, Section 5, contains no internal constraint on the Senate’s power to “determine Rules of its Proceedings.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 5. If the filibuster is unconstitutional, it is because it violates some external constraint—some fundamental right or principle—derived from another part of the Constitution. Professor Chafetz’s hypothetical is unconstitutional precisely because it violates two external constraints: the Qualifications Clause in Article I (which the Supreme Court in Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 547-48 (1969), construed as setting forth the only three permissible limitations on qualifications for being seated in Congress) and federalism principles (particularly state sovereignty to organize local elections in accordance with other constitutional provisions, including the Seventeenth Amendment). Obviously, Rule XXII, Standing Rules of the Senate, R. XXII, as reprinted in S. Doc. 106-15, at 15-17 (2000), does not violate the Qualifications Clause or state sovereignty..
The one external constraint that Professor Chafetz cites as the principal limitation on the filibuster—Article I, Section 7—is inapplicable to both his hypothetical and the filibuster. Section 7 defines the procedures to be followed in order for a bill to become law after it has “passed” the Congress. Professor Chafetz’s hypothetical is not, however, the kind of legislative action to which Section 7 applies. The plainest, most sensible reading of Sections 5 and 7 together is that the former pertains to the Senate’s power to devise the rules for its internal governance and the latter dictates the procedure after a bill has “passed” on the floor. By its plain language, Section 7 does not apply to internal governance. It makes little or no sense to construe it as overriding the plenary authority over internal governance that is given just two sections before in Section 5, especially because the two Sections plainly deal with different phases of the lawmaking process.
Professor Chafetz’s novel reading of Section 7 amounts to a constitutional entitlement of a bill to reach the floor of the House or Senate. This is an inevitable consequence of his principle of majoritarianism, because it would be impossible, in the absence of such an entitlement, to know for sure whether the principle was actually satisfied. There is, however, nothing in the language of the Constitution—or any other source of which I know—that would provide such a special entitlement for legislation. Professor Chafetz would agree, I am sure, that the lawmaking process in Article I was designed to be cumbersome—to make it harder, not easier, to enact laws.
Professor Chafetz’s strong, second push against the constitutionality of the filibuster is to question its historical support. Professor Chafetz suggests that the Framers did not envision a filibuster in its present form, though, as he acknowledges, the practice of endless debate traces its roots to ancient Rome. More relevantly, the Senate has employed this practice from the beginning. As Professors Catherine Fisk and Erwin Chemerinsky note in their extended study of the filibuster, “[t]he strategic use of delay in debate is as old as the Senate itself. The first recorded episode of dilatory debate occurred in 1790, when senators from Virginia and South Carolina filibustered to prevent the location of the first Congress in Philadelphia.” Catherine Fisk & Erwin Chemerinsky, The Filibuster, 489 Stan. L. Rev. 181, 187 (1997). Similarly, Robert Caro, in his study of Lyndon Johnson’s Senate years, depicts the uninterrupted use of the filibuster (and functionally identical devices) from 1790 to the 1950s, see Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate 91-93 (2002), while Professors John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport conclude, after studying the filibuster’s history, that “the continuous use of filibusters since the early Republic provides compelling support for their constitutionality.” John O. McGinnis & Michael B. Rappaport, The Constitutionality of Legislative Supermajority Requirements: A Defense, 105 Yale L.J. 483, 497 (1995). Professor Chafetz suggests that the filibuster to which these studies refer is not the same as the one to which he objects, though this seems to be a distinction without a difference since Rule XXII is directly traceable to and based on these earlier, longstanding practices.
The House, too, has employed several supermajority voting requirements, sometimes to obstruct lawmaking. Indeed, the filibuster was used in the House of Representatives until 1842, when the House adopted a permanent rule limiting the duration of debate. Moreover, the House “often conducts business under suspension of the rules, which requires two-thirds support.” Gregory J. Wawro & Eric Schickler, Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the U.S. Senate 235 (2006). The House “resorts to this procedure” to “expedite the passage of legislation,” though it is significant that expediting legislation in the House requires more than a majority’s support. Id. Professor Chafetz quotes approvingly from Jed Rubenfeld’s article defining the term “passed” in Article I, Section 7. Jed Rubenfeld, Rights of Passage: Majority Rule in Congress, 46 Duke L.J. 73, 83 (1996). The most important thing about Rubenfeld’s article, however, is that it was a failed attempt to persuade the House to abandon its rule requiring that at least sixty percent of the House had to agree to allow a vote on a tax increase. Id. at 73.
Third, Professor Chafetz pushes particularly hard against the argument in my Rebuttal that the filibuster is analogous to other countermajoritarian practices of the Senate, such as unanimous-consent requirements, holds, Senate committee chairs’ decisions over the scheduling of committee hearings and votes, blue slips, and committee actions (or nonactions). In a recent study, the Congressional Research Service identified five such practices, see Walter J. Oleszek, Super-Majority Votes in the Senate 2 (2008), not including a motion to amend the Senate rules governing impeachment trials. See also Michael J. Gerhardt, The Constitutionality of the Filibuster, 21 Const. Comment. 445, 466 (2004). Professor Chafetz argues that these practices are not analogous to the filibuster because none of them is necessarily fatal. Of course, the same could be said about the filibuster; it, too, is not necessarily obstructive. Nevertheless, Professor Chafetz suggests that these procedures differ from the filibuster in that they allow for ways, such as discharge petitions, by which a majority might maneuver around them.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that discharge of a bill languishing in committee is not possible in the absence of a hearing, and committee chairs have complete control over the scheduling—or nonscheduling—of hearings. It is practically impossible to discharge a bill on which the committee has never scheduled or held a hearing. Second, and more importantly, discharging legislation from a committee is rare. It is rare because the Senate rules allow a discharge petition to be subject to the same procedures as other legislative business, including Rule XXII. A discharge petition is subject, therefore, to a filibuster. Hence, it is not fully accurate to say that bypassing committees is achievable only with a simple majority. Third, apart from the filibuster, “[t]here are essentially three features of the [Senate] rules that form the basis of the institution’s tradition of obstruction: the right of recognition, the absence of a previous question rule, and the lack of a germaneness rule.” Wawro & Schickler, supra, at 13. The first of these is the right of each senator to be recognized by the presiding officer when she seeks the floor; the second is a device by which a majority can block rather than force a vote on a bill; and the third is the longstanding practice allowing senators to speak on “any topic of her choosing.” Id. at 15. Obstructing final floor votes on legislation is nothing new in the Senate; a constitutional entitlement to such votes would be new to the Senate.
Professor Chafetz also questions whether precedent supports the constitutionality of the filibuster—though it does, in more than one way. To begin with, the Senate has an unbroken tradition of amending its rules in accordance with its rules. Moreover, on four occasions, the Senate has expressly refused to recognize the unconstitutionality of Rule XXII or the constitutional entitlement of a majority to amend Rule XXII without having to comply with Senate rules. On all these occasions, the Senate rejected vice-presidential judgments that Rule XXII violated majority rule. On three other occasions, the Supreme Court has explicitly recognized that the Senate is “a continuing body,” a dicta that is completely consistent with both the legality and necessity of standing Senate rules. On yet another occasion, the Supreme Court rejected the kind of principle for which Professor Chafetz is arguing when it held that the Constitution does not “require that a majority always prevail on every issue.” Gordon v. Lance, 403 U.S. 1, 6 (1971). Together, these precedents provide forceful support for the filibuster and its entrenchment within Rule XXII.
Professor Chafetz does not comment on the Senate’s design, which provides additional constitutional support for the Senate’s standing rules, including Rule XXII. Such rules are fully consistent with the Senate’s design as “a continuing body,”two-thirds of which carries over from one legislative session to the next. The argument that Rule XXII violates an anti-entrenchment principle implicitly incorporated into Article I depends in part on the rights of newly elected or reelected senators to determine their internal rules of governance. It makes no sense, however, to give such rights to senators who have not gone through the special circumstances that are supposed to give rise to such rights in the first place.
The question remains how to fix the filibuster. Professor Chafetz’s answer, that the Senate must break its rules, would produce disastrous consequences. It would signify the end of the Senate’s numerous other countermajoritarian features, practices, rules, traditions, and norms. More importantly, it would produce a terrible precedent that would legitimize a majority’s breaking the rules whenever it liked. Just how terrible the Senate considers such a precedent to be is evident from the fact that the Senate has steadfastly refused to create it.
The Constitution leaves the fate of the filibuster in the hands of senators and the American people. The fact that the filibuster is a practice that many people dislike does not make it unconstitutional. Nor does the fact that it is constitutional mean that it must be done. A tax increase is a good analogy; it might be constitutional but it’s generally a bad idea. We can, however, keep faith with the principle of majoritarianism without constitutionalizing it. If the Senate’s deliberative function is broken, it is because a majority lacks the courage of its convictions. This is not always true, as reflected in the Senate’s passage of significant education, economic, and healthcare legislation within the past twelve months. Nevertheless, the place to find or fortify the courage to change the filibuster is the electoral process. The filibuster will not likely change until or unless the American people want to change it. As history shows, they sometimes do, and when they do, the filibuster will have met its match. But until then, the filibuster still stands.
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