The Senate’s Unchanging RulesRoundup
tags: filibuster, US Senate, Legislative Branch
Donald A. Ritchie is Senate Historian Emeritus and author of The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2016).
At his recent press conference, President Biden said that he came to the Senate 120 years ago. I knew exactly what he meant because I got there three years after him when I joined the Senate Historical Office in 1976, and it was a different world. Back then, all senators were men, as were all the clerks at the front desk. One party had held the majority for twenty years. Both parties were internally divided, straddling liberal and conservative wings. The most conservative senator was a Democrat, James Eastland of Mississippi. One of the most liberal senators was a Republican, Jacob Javits of New York. Most votes were bipartisan, with the liberals in each party joining to vote against the conservatives, and each side vying for the moderates. Straight party-line votes made headlines.
Today, twenty-five women serve in the Senate. The president of the Senate, secretary of the Senate, sergeant-at-arms, and parliamentarian are all women. The majority in the Senate has flipped nine times since then, or about every six years. The South seceded from the Democratic party, and liberals were expelled from the Republican party as Rinos (Republicans in name only). All this reshuffling made both parties internally cohesive, with very few senators left in the middle. Almost every vote now is along party lines. Bipartisan votes make headlines.
Clearly, a lot has changed. What hasn’t changed are the Senate’s rules. Unlike the House, which can write new rules at the beginning of each Congress, the Senate defines itself as a continuing body and is operating under the same rules that were in effect in the 1970s. Those rules fit an institution that engaged in a lot more wheeling and dealing and bipartisan coalition-building, but they have not been working as well in an era of polarized partisanship.
The Constitution authorizes the Senate to write its own rules. Paradoxically, the Senate created rules that make it exceedingly difficult to revise those rules. So, whenever it’s necessary to adjust its procedures, the Senate has set new precedents rather than writing new rules. If a majority of senators vote to overturn a ruling of the chair, they set a new precedent, which can completely contradict the written rules. The more polarized parties in the Senate have become, the more likely that change will come through strong-arm tactics by a frustrated majority.
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