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The Club

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If the "unlimited debate" (filibuster) rule continues to be abused in the Senate, little will be accomplished in the second Obama term. Regardless, proposed reform of this rule is not as simple as it looks from the outside. This has to do with the unique nature of the Senate.
Unlike the House of Representatives, Senators represent States not just district constituencies. The founders of the American republic wanted a parliament of the people, but they also wanted a forum for the states that formed the federated republic. By its nature, the Senate is more than a smaller House. It is a different deliberative body.

Being smaller, however, means that comity, personal relationships and an atmosphere of respect (stuffiness, its critics sniff), is magnified in importance. The least effective senators are those who put themselves, their careers, their egos, their ideologies, even the interest of their political party, ahead of respect for their colleagues, the institution, and the long-term national interest.

Special interest caucuses have much more influence in the House than in the Senate. The Senate is too small to permit itself to fracture into fragments, or the factions the founders dreaded. The most effective senators are those who demonstrate, over time, statesmanship, a long-range view and a sense of history, and the ultimate best interest of the nation. Unfortunately, there are too few of these historic senators in recent years, but there are a few and they exert a much greater influence than the careerists and partisan ideologues.

Senators, and to a degree House members as well, have a duty to educate their constituencies, including those with whom they may disagree, on the complex economic, diplomatic, and security issues the nation faces. This is particularly true of those constituencies that may have helped the senator to be elected. There is much too little exercise of this educational role from those in elective office. Everyday Americans will respond positively if a senator takes the time to break complex questions into understandable pieces and defeat efforts of hard-line ideologues with big media megaphones to misinform the public.

It is clear that the founders intended our political institutions to be governed by majority rule, as the constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar has exhaustively established. But the unique nature of the Senate, composed of representatives of states, requires respect for a different principle, at least up to a reasonable point. That principle is unlimited debate on the rare issues where popular opinion as reflected by the majority might be, as least for the moment, wrong. And in the case of specifically described measures, such as treaties, the Constitution requires two-thirds ratification by the Senate.

The dilemma caused by tension between clear majority rule and the rights of the minority can be resolved, as is currently being proposed, by limiting the measures on which unlimited debate can be exercised and by requiring actual debate and not simply the threat of a filibuster. As those who have had the honor of serving in the Senate know, however, the rules by which the Senate governs itself (originally designed by Thomas Jefferson) cannot and should not be altered casually or expediently.

The crisis of our government, our Congress, now has been brought on by a minority that contemptuously abuses those rules. That minority cannot have it both ways. It cannot demand respect for the rules of the Senate when it has abused those rules systematically, cynically and destructively. Those who love our country more than they love their political party will find a way to preserve and protect the unique nature of the Senate, the forum of the states, even while moving our nation forward.