- The Senate will vote on changes to the filibuster Thursday. Both the argument against the filibuster and the ways it may be changed hinge on interpretations of majority rule.
- Opponents of the filibuster argue that in its current incarnation, it essentially requires 60 votes for anything to get done, which they consider undemocratic. They also argue that the rules of the Senate can be changed by a simple majority.
- Supporters of the filibuster argue that it protects the rights of the minority in the Senate. They also argue that Senate rules can only be changed by a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes.
- Below are six historical precedents for and against majority rule in Congress which may come up.
The U.S. Constitution
- What is it: The document ratified by the states in 1789 which set up the rules for the federal government.
- What it says: "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member. ... The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided."
- What it means: The Constitution never states that the Senate must be run by simple majority and says each chamber may write its own rules. But it also refers to senators being "equally divided," which could not happen with a supermajority.
Federalist Paper No. 22
- What is it: A 1787 tract on the Constitution by Alexander Hamilton, a member of the Constitutional Convention.
- What it says: "If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated."
- What it means: Hamilton argues that the requirement for a supermajority allows a minority to delay legislation improperly and force unpopular compromises.
Federalist Paper No. 58
- What is it: A 1788 tract discussing the size of the House written by James Madison, the document's main drafter.
- What it says: "In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences."
- What it means: Madison argues that any procedure that requires a supermajority actually empowers the minority, since it only takes 41 percent of lawmakers to stop a bill, and he says this is undemocratic.
Manual of Parliamentary Practice
- What is it: An 1801 manual on parliamentary procedure in the Senate written by Thomas Jefferson.
- What it says: "No one is to speak impertinently or beside the question, superfluously or tediously. ... The voice of the majority decides. For the lex majoris partis is the law of all councils, elections, &c. where not otherwise expressly provided."
- What it means: First, Jefferson argues that no senator can speak for longer than necessary. Later, he argues that simple majority rule (lex majoris partis) is the basic guiding principle for legislative votes.
United States v. Ballin