Tuesday, March 2, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

One may think that Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) is right to bring attention to the deficit implications of an unemployment benefits bill.  One may even have a philosophical objection to unemployment benefits.  While there are debates to be had there, they really aren’t the most relevant issues of Bunning’s move to pitch a one-man procedural filibuster against the bill in question (via the LATOne-man filibuster draws fire):

Bunning was able to block the bill because both Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate had signed off on passing it without a floor vote, instead asking that it be approved by unanimous consent.

Bunning withheld his consent Thursday and continued to do so into Monday evening.

The usage of unanimous consent in the US Senate is not all that unusual, for what that is worth.  As appears to be the case here, they are usually negotiated between majority and minority leadership.

Regardless, the notion that individual Senators can wield this much power in the face of overwhelming support for a given bill is simply problematic in a democratic sense.

Yes, this is a long-standing situation (although one that has become more acute in recent decades).

Yes, these types of behaviors are engaged in by both parties.

Yes, the US system government was designed to be slow and plodding (but, it was not constitutionally designed to give individual Senators this kind of power—these powers are the function of Senate rules, not the constitution, nor the intent of the Founders).

The ultimate question that Americans need to ask themselves is:  do they really want the legislature to function (if one can call it that) like this?  No doubt some think that obstruction is good, while others only can see these things through partisan lenses (and will see the light once the partisan roles are switched).  Yet more may only see a given situation in terms of whether they like the outcome of a given act of obstruction.

Still, I can help but reiterate something I wrote about a month ago:

How about if a Senator has a reason to object to a given nominee that said Senator would, oh I don’t know, maybe take the floor and try to, well, persuade the other Senators that the nominee is, well, not worthy of the job.  If one’s argument and evidence is powerful enough, perhaps one could actually form a majority contra the nominee.

Of course, to make the above paragraph fit the specifics of the Bunning situation, one has to substitute the word “legislation” for “nominee.”

The Senate has often been called “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” and yet that is a difficult title to claim if deliberation often is removed from the equation by the undemocratic actions of a single Senator.

One would like to think that at some point more and more people will start to see that the Senate simply doesn’t function very well (at least if one values things like democratic deliberation), but one suspects that they will not.

(And I am not, for the moment, even going to broach the subject of the lousy job of representation that the Senate does, which is fundamental to the issue as well.)

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7 Responses to “Another Example of the Problems with the Senate”

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    1. Ted Craig Says:

      The problem is there was a debate to be had about extending benefits (many economists argue it’s a bad way to deal with unemployment), but there’s no way to have it without it turning into grandstanding. You should have seen the reaction on the local news here in Detroit. The anchor gave Bunning’s Kentucky office number and angrily told viewers to call and say what they thought of him. He came short of handing out torches and pitchforks. Then there was the political theater of the administration closing down road projects immediately, which I doubt needed to be done. Bunning may be victim of doing the right thing in the wrong way, but I question if there is a way to actually have this conversation on the public stage today.

    2. Steven L. Taylor Says:

      I appreciate the comment, but I suppose my immediate reaction is: the current move isn’t grandstanding?

    3. Ted Craig Says:

      I’m not sure what it is, to tell you the truth. Bunning’s coming across as a bit of a daffy old man, which is another problem that nobody discusses.

    4. KipEsquire Says:

      “nor the intent of the Founders”

      Um, the “intent of the Founders” was that the Senate would represent the States, not the people — and that individual Senators would vote as instructed by state legislatures or risk removal.

      Perhaps all these people who dislike the modern Senate (or the entire modern federal government, for that matter) would care to work toward repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment?

      If not, then let’s at least jettison this “intent of the Founders” gobbledygook.

    5. Steven L. Taylor Says:


      I would point out that my “nor the intent of the Founders” reference was to the filibuster/individual powers of Senators that the rules of the chamber allow. The reference had zero to do with representation. I point that out above specifically because some people seem to think that the filibuster, et al., comes straight to us from the Philadelphia convention. They do not.

      And yes, the Founders intended Senators to represent the states as part of political compromise to ratify the Constitution. I have no problem, btw, with both acknowledging the Senate’s original design and also criticizing it.

      I will also note that representing the states is still, ultimately, representing the people in those states, but that is a separate issue from the point I was trying to make above and that you quote.

      And no, I have no interest in repealing the 17th Amendment, as that would take already problematic situation and make it worse.


    6. Steven L. Taylor Says:

      I would also add, by way of hopefully clarifying my point, that the bicameral system does lead to slow governance and that, too, was part of the Founder’s design. However, that would be true regardless of the nature of representation in the chambers.

      There are, really, several different issues here.

      1) Bicameralism with chambers that have equal legislative powers. That, by definition, slows things down and is part of the constitutional structure.

      2) The rules of the Senate that allow for minority privileges, sometimes to the point of a minority of one. These are a result of rules of the Senate and the evolution of tradition. They are not part of the constitutional structure created in Philadelphia and subsequently amended (and, again, that was what I was referring to in regards the portion of the post you quoted).

      3) The representation question. In terms of the post, I would note the parenthetical at the end that states I was purposefully avoiding the issue in the post itself. As a matter of principle, however, I have come to the conclusion (which is an evolution from the way I used to view it) that the chamber’s representational makeup is, at best, unfair, and at worst, undemocratic. That view predates the current public debate over the filibuster and has nothing to do with preferences, one way or another, regarding any pending legislation.

    7. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Political Science, the Senate, and General Design of Government Says:

      [...] The Filibuster is a Creature of Senate Rules, not the Constitution.  as I was trying to note the other day:  the filibuster/any kind of supermajority requirement within the Senate is not a [...]

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