United States: How Congress Works: The Filibuster



The dispute over the filibuster has exploded on the US political scene and is appropriately called the nuclear option. It has been debated in Congress and outside.  In Congress the debates were hard, but polite and informative. Outside Congress, Democratic leaders adopted a populist mode when addressing crowd opposing the privatization of Social Security.  The only speaker who preserved his senatorial gravitas was Harry Reid of Nevada. Most speakers have declared that the filibuster is something uniquely American and therefore must be protected as a national treasure. Historically-minded Senator Robert Byrd took a contrary approach, tracing its long history in Europe, going back to the Roman Republic of  59 BC, but stressing the British experience of the Glorious Revolution which brought in William III.

There has been much talk about the filibuster as a protection against the tyranny of the majority.  There is, however, a tyranny within each party.  As Gilbert and Sullivan said, the politicians vote just as their leaders tell'em to. Occasionally they break ranks, but may thus incur the wrath of the party  leaders.  The only way to protect the public against the tyranny of the majority is the plebiscite, of which Switzerland provided the prototype and which California has adopted. A WAISworthy subject would be the study of the plebiscite worldwide.  My impression is that in Switzerland it works well.  In California it is too long and complicated for most voters. Spin doctors word propositions in such a way that it is often hard to know what one is voting for. Some colleagues say they voted in elections and expect their representatives to work out detailed legislation. My own position is that a plebiscite provides a political education, free from the demagoguery of public meetings.

I am surprised that, in all these hours of debate about social security I have not once heard the word "·scam". Yet that is a key issue.  Old, often poorly educated people of limited intelligence would fall easy prey to scams offering them great financial gains.  When in 1931 I went to Madrid for the first time I stayed with the public relations officer of a  bank known as Los Previsores del Porvenir.  At meals he would tell us of the unusual rate of interest his bank gave thanks to its brilliant management.  Being young and eager to please, I invested some of my modest resources, paying a monthly premium. Back in England I was warned that there was something fishy about it, but, since I trusted my Madrid host, I went on paying monthly premiums till long after I came to Stanford.  Then I received an official message from Madrid telling me that the bank had been engaged in a Ponzi scheme and had gone bankrupt-

With the development of advertising and TV, scams have become more common.  TV regularly runs advertisements telling people how they can reduce payments on their taxes or their debts. I imagine that lots of simple, desperate people are fooled.  Advertisements often commit egregious sins of omission.  I was bombarded with advertisements for COMCAST, stressing only its great speed.. That one word led me to switch from DSL, a decision I have had reason to lament.  COMCAST has been one long headache. The latest experience was yesterday, when I could not log on. I spent well over an hour on the phone with COMCAST technicians, who told me that my equipment was not plugged in properly.  They had me going around  checking various plugs and pieces of equipment.  They did ot know that in this area their whoI try to follow the workings of the governments  of all the major countries and to compare them-  The problems they all face are almost identical.  I am amazed and puzzled by the present American obsession with the filibuster. Senator Dick Durbin of  Illinois (D), one of the most intelligent and best informed members of Congress, gave a long, well-documented speech on the filibuster, but as usual  he ignored the experience and methods of other countries, implying that the US constitution is unique and implicitly superior to all others.  The Senate, he said, sets its own rules, and the filibuster was first used in the debate to move the federal capital to Washington.  The Supreme Court has been denounced because it proposed to examine the law of other countries to see how they have solved problems.  This willingness to study the experience of other countries was branded as close to treason. This insular attitude is silly.  What would happen to an American automobile company if it took such a disdainful attitude toward the automobile manufacturers of Japan and other countries?  It seems obvious that the institute for the study of Congress which John Brademas plans should have an international dimension. For Great Britain, I commend C.SPAN's Common Sense. A Viewer's Guide to the British House of Commons.  "Guillotine:  A timetable motion for completing consideration of a bill.  It cuts off any further discussion".  As far as I know, it has worked well,
le system was down. It finally was repaired, and I was able to resume work.  Today a technician is coming to install DSL Yahoo, which I trust is better than DSL lite.  Santa Tecla, ora pro nobis.

I wrote:  "It did not occur to him that the filibuster blocks what is in theory the will of the people." Cameron Sawyer writes: Do not confuse the will of the people with the will of the majority, particularly, a bare majority.  The potential difference between these things is the whole point of the filibuster, as well as numerous other institutions of the American constitutional system.  RH: As usual, I am confused. The same situation occurs in European parliaments, and they get along without the filibuster. Perhaps the problem is the US presidential system.  It has been said that the parliamentary system marks the minutes of public opinion, the presidential system the hours. An hour is a long time-


Ronald Hilton 2005

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last updated: June 8, 2005