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The Filibuster, Supermajority and the Constitution

Posted Dec 29 2009 12:00am
Photo by Robin GreenEye via Flickr

Photo by Robin GreenEye via Flickr

Ezra Klein has published an engaging  series of  interviews regarding the filibuster, and the prospects and shape of reform for the Senate’s  much maligned rule of procedure. The prospects for reform don’t look particularly bright. And as we come to reckon with one of the final products of the filibuster floor, the Senate’s health reform bill, we may want to take a moment to consider the filibuster itself– this need for 60 votes.

Klein writes

According to UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair, about 8 percent of major bills faced a filibuster in the 1960s. This decade, that jumped to 70 percent. The problem with the minority party continually making the majority party fail, of course, is that it means neither party can ever successfully govern the country.

It should also be noted that unlike today, a filibuster in the early 60’s required the arduous (and, it would seem, daunting) physical task of continued speech and an inability to consider other legislation during the pendency of the filibuster. A set of circumstances which at times brought sleeping cots onto the Senate floor and may have served to limit the filibuster’s use.

The Health Reform bill has served to highlight the dysfunction of the filibuster in modernity. The filibuster is not enshrined in the Constitution, it is merely a rule of the Senate.

The United States Senate requires a supermajority of three-fifths to move to a vote through a cloture motion, which closes debate on a bill or nomination, thus ending a filibuster by a minority of members. In current practice, the mere threat of a filibuster prevents passing almost any measure that has less than three-fifths agreement in the Senate. Since there are 100 members, three-fifths is sixty Senators.

The need for a supermajority is not unknown to the Constitution, but to say it is used sparingly and for matters of great import is not to engage in hyperbole. A quick glance at the Great Document bears this out. The original Constitution contains only five instances which require a supermajority; the Amendments two. A supermajority of two-thirds of both houses of Congress is required for Congress to propose a constitutional amendment and to pass a bill over a presidential veto; two-thirds concurrence of all members of the Senate present is necessary to convict under Impeachment; two-thirds concurrence of all members of the Senate present is requisite to consent to a treaty. The Constitution also requires the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senate to “expel a member.” The Fourteenth Amendment forbids those who formerly held office, either civil or military, and had engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” from holding any office–either civil or military– unless two-thirds of both the House and Senate  acted to “remove such disability.”  The Twenty-Fifth Amendment requires a two-thirds majority of each house to determine that an Acting President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

Constitutional amendment, over-ride a presidential veto, convict under impeachment, expel a member, ratify a treaty, remove a punishment for rebellion, and judge a president incompetent. These are fairly characterized as “exceptional situations,” not the everyday stuff of a legislature doing business. But because of the Senate’s filibuster rules, the need for a supermajority of 60 has become a part of the everyday stuff of a legislature attempting to do business.

Under Article 1, Section 5 [2] “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings….” And the filibuster is very much a rule of the Senate’s proceedings. But at a certain point, the procedural rule can be said to have overtaken the substantive– I would suggest we begin considering whether or not we are at that point.

In U S v. BALLIN, 144 U.S. 1 (1892) the Supreme Court looked at the rule making power of Congress and had this to say

The constitution empowers each house to determine its rules of proceedings. It may not by its rules ignore constitutional restraints or violate fundamental rights, and there should be a reasonable relation between the mode or method of proceeding established by the rule and the result which is sought to be attained. But within these limitations all matters of method are open to the determination of the house, and it is no impeachment of the rule to say that some other way would be better, more accurate, or even more just. It is no objection to the validity of a rule that a different one has been prescribed and in force for a length of time. The power to make rules is not one which once exercised is exhausted. It is a continuous power, always subject to be exercised by the house, and, within the limitations suggested, absolute and beyond the challenge of any other body or tribunal.

There are at least a few things to consider in this regard. Perhaps foremost is the ability of the Senate to change the filibuster rule (”The power to make rules is not one which once exercised is exhausted.”). Also, it may well be a stretch, but I find it interesting nonetheless: does the present form and practice of the filibuster (a defacto supermajority requirement for the passage of legislation in the Senate) “ignore constitutional restraints or violate fundamental rights?” (i.e., does it, as described in INS v. Chadha, offend the “framers’ decision that the legislative power of the Federal government be exercised in accord with a single, finely wrought and exhaustively considered, procedure.” (See also Powell v. McCormack, where the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional  a House resolution to not permit the duly elected Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to take his seat in the House of Representatives (”Moreover, it would effectively nullify the [Constitutional] Convention’s decision to require a two-thirds vote for expulsion.”).

Which is to say, in this matter, does the filibuster, as practiced currently, effectively nullify the simple majoritarian requirement for the passage of legislation in the Senate? Of course, the Constitution lacks an explicit textual commitment to majority rule. But the argument in favor of majority rule is a powerful one, hinged upon that venerable canon of statutory construction, expressio unius est exclusio alterius, ‘the expression of the one is the exclusion of the other.’ Which is to say, that by listing these five supermajority exceptions in the original constitution that I have listed above, the drafters made simple majority in all other cases the default position. To appreciate the power of this argument (and this canon of construction) on need not look any further than the Bill of Rights. Madison balked mightily at the proposal for a Bill of Rights as being “dangerous” because the act of listing certain rights  would, under black letter principle, ‘the expression of the one is the exclusion of the other,’ negate the existence of others. The solution to Madison’s fear– the anti-expressio unius est exclusio alterius– is contained in the Ninth Amendment:

“The enumeration in the Constitution, in certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

The textual analysis regarding majority and supermajority goes something like this: Article II, Section 2 [2] regarding the powers of the President reads

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law…. (emphasis added)

The presence of the requirement that two-thirds of the Senators concur in the ratification of a treaty, shows that when the drafters wanted to provide for a supermajority requirement they knew how; that they failed to include the clause requiring a two thirds majority appointment for “Ambassadors… and judges of the supreme Court” is strong evidence that they did not want to as it regards “Ambassadors… and judges of the supreme Court.” Furthermore, had they not provided for a two-thirds supermajority for treaties, one might argue that a supermajority applied to Treaties and Ambassadors and supreme Court judges– as the question may have remained open. But by expressing the requirement in the one instance (treaties), they excluded, or closed the door on, the others (Ambassadors… and supreme Court judges”).

Similarly, the various (but few) provisions scattered throughout the Constitution  show that the drafters knew how to create a supermajority requirement when they wanted to, and by virtue of simply being, these supermajority requirements show themselves to be exceptions to the unstated rule. In this case, the unstated rule being that a simple majority is necessary for the passage of legislation.

In addition, it should be noted that the Constitution gives a vote to the Vice-President only in instances where the Senate is “equally divided.” The presumption of course is that in doing so it will allow the Vice-President to break the tie and, by a one vote majority, allow for the legislation to either pass or fail. Importantly,  an “equally divided” Senate is rendered meaningless in the light of  a supermajority requirement.

The argument in favor of the 60 vote requirement to invoke cloture and end a flilibuster largely rests upon the premise that the Constitution grants to the Senate plenary power under Article 1, Section 5 [2] “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings….” That within that clause lay the ability to proscribe the numerical meaning of the requirements for Senate procedure. But what happens when the rule of procedure swallows the law?

One might also ask if there is a constitutional argument that can be made if one can point to the concrete harm in a particular bill effectuated? Not effectuated? (But See Raines v. Byrd (1997) for the standing difficulties for Federal Senators bringing a claim against diminishment of Congressional power wrought by the Presidential line item veto, dismissed on standing grounds by the Supreme Court and characterized as “a type of institutional injury which damages all Members of Congress equally.” But, importantly, especially considering the disparate financial impact on states regarding Medicaid funding in the Senate bill, See Clinton v. New York (1998), where the state of New York did have standing and successfully challenged the same presidential line item veto after the use of the same resulted in the loss of $955 million to New York for the payment of expenses related to the medical care for the indigent).

The balance of power in Congress between large and small states was hotly contested at the Constitutional Convention. The compromise, in which members of the House of Representatives would be apportioned through population and members of the Senate would be limited to a flat two members per state, could certainly be characterized, like the process of legislation itself, as being a “single, finely wrought and exhaustively considered, procedure.” So much so in fact that the compromise which gave birth to the form of the Senate and its particularized distribution of power is, in a sense, a distinct creature within the Constitution. An anomaly, if you will. When Alabama attempted to implement such a plan in 1964, patterned closely after the Federal Legislature, for the configuration of its State Legislature, it was deemed unconstitutional as repugnant to the Equal Protection clause. The Court in Reynolds v. Sims, 379 U.S. 870 (1964) stated:

“We hold that, as a basic constitutional standard, the Equal Protection Clause requires that the seats in both houses of a bicameral state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis.”

The Court distinguished the federal construct of the Senate as “ingrained in our Constitution as part of the law of the land” and “conceived out of compromise and concession indispensible to the establishment of our federal republic. Arising from unique historical circumstances….”

In the Free Exercise religion case,  Employment Division v.  Smith, 497 U.S. 872 (1990), Justice Scalia speaks of the increased weight and power of “hybrid” rights–rights in which the Free Exercise clause is coupled with other constitutional protections “such as freedom of speech or  the press.” What then is the result of a Constitutional scheme that outside of the Constitution is actually repugnant to a fundamental right?   Considering the offensiveness of the scheme to the Equal Protection Clause, at least when applied to putative state action to effectuate such a scheme, one wonders if a tighter leash isn’t appropriate? Perhaps somewhat akin to the strict adherence we require of “granfathered” zoning usages? This may be a bit afield, but so also may be a Senate rule which de facto requires a supermajority to pass legislation.

It is also worth noting that the Constitution jealously protects a state’s stake in the power of a Federal Senate seat. It protects the legislative power of states in the federal government by forbidding the creation of new states “formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.” (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1).

The fear addressed being that a state such as New York could create within it’s borders– or with the help of a bordering state– “New York. West,” thereby increasing its number of Senators by 2 (and if the population of the newly created state was less than 30,000, a House member as well). In doing so, a state such as New York could thereby increase its own senatorial power and diminish the senatorial power of the other states. The Seanate, particularly, is a zero sum game. But the clause in Article IV, importantly, essentially prohibits the diminishment of a state’s Congressional power–especially senatorial power–by forbidding an action which would do so– unless Congress, both the Senate and House, agree. One could argue that the filibuster as practiced accomplishes a similar diminishment of  senatorial power–but does so without the consent of the House (or, for that matter, the State Legislators).

And the point is this:

“According to UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair, about 8 percent of major bills faced a filibuster in the 1960s. This decade, that jumped to 70 percent.”

I loved “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as much as the next fellow; but this isn’t that. And although I’m not saying that the filibuster, as presently configured, is unconstitutional, I am saying that we may seriously wish to begin looking to the Constitution to formulate answers regarding the modern problem of the filibuster. The Constitution is not a suicide pact, but the Senate rules may be.

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