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Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the U.S. Senate

Gregory J. Wawro
Eric Schickler
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Parliamentary obstruction, popularly known as the "filibuster," has been a defining feature of the U.S. Senate throughout its history. In this book, Gregory J. Wawro and Eric Schickler explain how the Senate managed to satisfy its lawmaking role during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when it lacked seemingly essential formal rules for governing debate.

    What prevented the Senate from self-destructing during this time? The authors argue that in a system where filibusters played out as wars of attrition, the threat of rule changes prevented the institution from devolving into parliamentary chaos. They show that institutional patterns of behavior induced by inherited rules did not render Senate rules immune from fundamental changes.

    The authors' theoretical arguments are supported through a combination of extensive quantitative and case-study analysis, which spans a broad swath of history. They consider how changes in the larger institutional and political context--such as the expansion of the country and the move to direct election of senators--led to changes in the Senate regarding debate rules. They further investigate the impact these changes had on the functioning of the Senate. The book concludes with a discussion relating battles over obstruction in the Senate's past to recent conflicts over judicial nominations.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4947-5
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  2. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Chapter One Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    In August of 1848, a bill establishing a territorial government for Oregon was considered in the U.S. Senate. The version of H.R. 201 passed by the House of Representatives included a provision—consistent with the Northwest Ordinance—that prohibited slavery in the territory. This provision touched what was arguably the deepest political fault line of the period. Southern senators, extremely wary of any attempt by the federal government to limit the institution of slavery, marshaled their forces to stop the bill with this provision from passing. They did so in part by exploiting procedural rules in the Senate that permitted...

  5. Chapter Two Obstruction in Theoretical Context
    (pp. 25-60)

    Legislative obstruction is a tool of minorities. If a senator has the votes to pass legislation in the form she wants or defeat legislation she opposes, she does not need to employ dilatory tactics. As the previous chapter emphasizes, the rules of the Senate have historically granted substantial rights to minorities when they have found it in their interest to obstruct. From 1806 to 1917, senators could have asked for the “ayes and nays” in order to bring legislative items to a vote, but minorities could have always responded with dilatory tactics to prevent the votes from actually being cast....

  6. Chapter Three The Mutability of Senate Rules
    (pp. 61-88)

    One of the most controversial claims that we make in this book is that the threat of rules changes was a significant constraint on minority obstruction in early periods of the Senate’s history. For our argument about the constraining effect of potential rules changes to hold, it must be the case that senators believed that it was feasible for the majority to adopt formal rules or precedents to help defeat a filibustering minority. Absent the potential for rules changes, the most determined majority could still be stymied by a committed minority, so long as the minority is large enough to...

  7. Chapter Four Where’s the Pivot?
    (pp. 89-108)

    Even though the Constitution implies that only a majority of the Senate is required to pass legislation, the rules of the modern Senate concerning debate effectively mean that supermajorities are generally necessary for passage. Since 1975, three-fifths of the membership has been required to invoke cloture, which places limits on the amount of subsequent debate that can take place so that a final vote on passage may occur. With some variations, two-thirds majorities were required for cloture from 1917 to 1975. But, as highlighted in Chapters 1 to 3, the Senate had no formal rule for ending debate and moving...

  8. Chapter Five Dilatory Motions and the Success of Obstruction
    (pp. 109-126)

    Our empirical investigation into the location of the pivotal players in Senate lawmaking has so far kept us above the fray of the parliamentary trench warfare that generates much of the popular interest in filibuster politics. Yet behind the numbers on coalition sizes that we reported in the previous chapter are dramatic legislative battles where sometimes historically consequential speeches are delivered and head-spinning parliamentary skill is on display, and at other times America’s ruling elite engage in startlingly brutish behavior. Our analysis of significant legislation did not directly consider whether obstruction occurred and wars of attrition ensued. In this chapter,...

  9. Chapter Six Obstruction and the Tariff
    (pp. 127-158)

    In earlier chapters, we have relied primarily upon general, quantitative tests to assess the impact of unlimited debate in the pre-cloture Senate. We take a different tack in this chapter, tracing the role of obstruction in a single policy area over a long stretch of history. One advantage of such an approach is that it enables us to draw upon both a rich historical literature and primary sources to gain a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of coalition building. Our case study of tariff politics from the 1820s through 1930 allows us to assess the robustness of our finding that...

  10. Chapter Seven Slavery and Obstruction in the Antebellum Senate
    (pp. 159-180)

    The previous three chapters analyzed the macro-effects of obstruction on lawmaking. In this chapter, we push our analysis down to the micro-level by investigating what factors motivate individuals to engage in and support obstructive efforts. We undertake an analysis of obstruction in the antebellum Senate, exploiting the special political context of this period to further test some of the key theoretical conjectures developed in Chapter 2—specifically, those relevant to salience and intensity. In particular, we focus on the importance of minority status as it relates to sectionalism and the salience of issues involving slavery in driving minority obstruction. Our...

  11. Chapter Eight Obstruction and Institutional Change
    (pp. 181-210)

    While our analysis of coalition sizes in the pre- and post-cloture periods in previous chapters provides important answers to questions about lawmaking in the Senate, it also raises several puzzles, especially about the motivation for and impact of cloture reform. Most notably, if slim majorities could generally pass legislation prior to 1917, why did senators bother to adopt a cloture rule that would require coalitions to belargerthan was typically necessary at the time? Historians and political scientists have a poor understanding of the practical importance of this landmark reform, and several competing conventional wisdoms exist regarding the reasons...

  12. Chapter Nine Cloture Reform Reconsidered
    (pp. 211-236)

    In this chapter, we investigate the impact of cloture reform, assessing the degree to which the rule affected lawmaking in the Senate. A central component of our theory is that legislators will move to a more rules-based system when relational legislating falters. This need not mean a complete shift from informal constraints to formal rules; instead, explicit rules can be adopted that limit the most troublesome shortcomings of relation-based governance, without completely displacing reliance upon norms and informal understandings. A thorough test of our theoretical arguments requires us to demonstrate that legislators do indeed benefit from this kind of formalization....

  13. Chapter Ten The Impact of Cloture on the Appropriations Process
    (pp. 237-258)

    In this chapter, we pursue the issue of the impact of cloture further by examining the appropriations process in the Senate. The failure to pass appropriations bills, especially due to obstruction, was a major concern of senators in the period under examination. They perennially confronted the problem of passing appropriations before the fiscal year expired, which was necessary to keep the federal government operating. We argue that the cloture rule was a key component of a set of institutional reforms that addressed the ability of the Senate to fulfill its charge in fiscal policymaking despite its sparse procedural infrastructure.


  14. Chapter Eleven Conclusion
    (pp. 259-284)

    One of the key questions we have tackled in this study is why a legislature would choose to allow a minority of its members to block the passage of legislation. A closely related question is under what conditions does it make sense to explicitly grant permission to a minority to obstruct through a supermajority cloture rule, as opposed to allowing individual members latitude to obstruct but not spelling out a specific threshold for forcing a final vote.

    We have argued that the Senate relied upon an informal system of regulating filibuster battles prior to adoption of the cloture rule in...

  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 285-302)