The House's filibuster
Early on in American history, it was actually the House of Representatives that was bedeviled by a parliamentary maneuver that killed legislation by denying it a majority vote. Ron Brownstein's “The Second Civil War” (which is selling for a great price on Amazon) has a particularly clear explanation of the practice and its abolition:
In 1890 ... the corpulent, cold-eyed Republican speaker Thomas B. Reed of Maine rewrote House rules to eliminate the minority's ability to block bills. The minority's most powerful weapon in the nineteenth-century House has been its ability to prevent action by refusing to answer present during roll calls; that denied the majority the quorum required for action. On Wednesday, January 29, 1890, without warning even his allies, Reed instructed the clerk to record as present and not voting all the Democrats who refused to answer when the speaker sought to bring up a contested election from West Virginia. Democrats erupted in outrage, but Reed made the change stick: No longer could the minority stalemate the majority through the House equivalent of a Senate filibuster.
The Democrats might have complained when Reed changed the rules, but they kept them in place once they took over the House. And there's never been a major effort to restore the quorum trick. Nor has there been a successful, or even popular, campaign to adopt the Senate filibuster in the House. Instead, the House now functions through majority rule. Even more impressive, its votes are considered legitimate, and the Senate and the president routinely support House legislation and treat the branch as a co-equal member of government rather than a rogue bastion of majority rule.
Oh, and I'll just point out that it was a Republican speaker who ended the House's filibuster. Majority rule is, in principle, bipartisan. It's just not supported by both parties at the same time.
March 8, 2010; 3:40 PM ET
Categories: Congress , History
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