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Mathis: Founders would have hated the filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gestures during a

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (September 23, 2011)

The Founding Fathers would have hated the filibuster.

Sure, they gave the Senate the permission to write its own rules, and yes, they created a checks-and-balances form of government to ensure government didn’t overstep its bounds. But the Founders created the Constitution because they wanted an  energetic government and they didn’t want a few naysayers obstructing that energy.

Listen to Alexander Hamilton, writing in The Federalist Papers against the discarded notion that two-thirds of states be required to approve federal legislation — giving a one-third minority of states veto power over such bills. 

“Two thirds of the  people of America could not long be persuaded ... to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third,” he wrote, adding: “We forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the  doing what may be necessary.”

The situation Hamilton reviled isn’t so different from the modern Senate, where 60 out of 100 votes must be mustered to pass any legislation of consequence. Which means about two-thirds has been forced to submit to the management of one-third.

Elsewhere in the Federalist, James Madison wrote against another filibuster-like trick to block legislation: Congressmen simply didn’t show up for votes they didn’t like, preventing a quorum to pass legislation. Madison hated the idea of that  technique: “It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority,” he wrote. But that is precisely what happens in the Senate.

The proposed reforms wouldn’t end the filibuster, but filibustering would be harder. Senators would actually have to show up, give speeches and make votes to block legislation. They’d have to do their job, in other words. That’s not unreasonable.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable, in fact, to ban filibusters outright, but that won’t happen. Just remember: The Founders would have hated the filibuster. They were right.

Joel Mathis is a writer in Philadelphia.


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