Fuzzy History on Founders from Schultz Radio Guest John Nichols of The Nation

Want to irk a liberal? I've got just the word for it -- "filibuster."

Hardly a waking hour passes these days without an indignant left-winger in the media condemning this arcane procedure requiring 60 votes to pass major legislation in the Senate.

In the process, dubious claims are being made. Here, for example, is John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, on Ed Schultz's radio show this past Wednesday (click here for audio) --

NICHOLS: The fact of the matter is that the founders of this republic believed in an arcane, almost forgotten concept called majority rule. They thought that a majority got to decide things. And it is extremely important that these senators, and it's not just Feingold, it's also quite a few other Democratic senators, who think they are defending some sort of structural tradition, some sort of American way of doing things.

Recognize that there is nothing, nothing constitional, nothing, you know, historic about a 60-vote rule in a hundred-member chamber. That is merely a structure put in there, frankly, to be quite blunt with you, put in there long ago by people who didn't want the Senate to act on issues like slavery and civil rights, and this is an absurd rule to try and defend. It ought to be, it oughta be jettisoned. They oughta go to majority rule.

There is "nothing constitutional" about the Senate requiring more than a simple majority when voting, Nichols claims. That being the case, why did the founders specify several scenarios where a supermajority was necessary?  

As George Will wrote in an op-ed in Thursday's New York Post headlined "Stop whining about the filibuster" --

Some liberals argue: The Constitution empowers each chamber to "determine the rules of its proceedings." It requires five supermajorities (for ratifying treaties, endorsing constitutional amendments, overriding vetoes, expelling members and impeachment convictions). Therefore it doesn't permit requiring a sixth, to end filibusters.
Ah, that dry Will sarcasm.

Not incidentally, delegates to the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia decided that a supermajority of nine states was needed to ratify the Constitution itself -- not a simple majority of seven. 

Nor was a bare majority deemed sufficient at the Second Continental Congress in 1776 when delegates argued strenuously over severing ties with Britain. In the end, 12 of 13 colonies voted for independence, none objected and only one, New York, abstained. 

Nichols isn't the only liberal in the media driven to contortion by the filibuster. Just as unsettled is MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who vents about it on a daily basis. Maddow even held a contest for her viewers to rename the filibuster. Winning submission: The Tarantino -- an allusion to director Quentin Tarantino, a recent Maddow guest -- because it "kills bills".

Here's Maddow right at the start of her show on show Feb. 22, talking about Senate Democrats overcoming a GOP, ah, Tarantino to pass a so-called jobs bill --

MADDOW: But we begin with the Republican Party's failed effort to stop America from getting a jobs bill. While the country is mired in double-digit unemployment, Republicans voted today to filibuster the jobs bill. It was only able to advance when five Senate Republicans bucked their own party and voted with Democrats to allow the bill to move toward a final vote. Every other Republican who voted today, aside from these five, plus conservative Democratic senator Ben Nelson, voted to filibuster. To be clear, they didn't just vote no on a jobs bill. They voted to not even allow it to pass if it got a majority vote. They filibustered it, because they filibuster everything.

This is The Tarantino in action. It kills bills.

Except when it doesn't, as was the case here. But why let an inconvenient detail like that derail a good rant?

Nichols told Schultz that Democrats may think "they are defending some sort of structural tradition, some sort of American way of doing things."

Another explanation for Democrats' ambivalence about ending the filibuster -- their sobering fear of reverting to minority party after this year's mid-terms. Because as both major parties have demonstrated in the last decade, one's views on the filibuster appear dictated entirely on whether one is looking up or down at it.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Liberated ex-liberal from the People's Republic of Massachusetts