American Political Mythology and the Senate Filibuster

Article excerpt

As Congress opened its 104th session in early January, 1995, both the House of Representatives and the Senate were under Republican party control for the first time in over 40 years. Marked by media fanfare usually reserved for presidential inaugurations, those first few days of the legislative session focused the nation's attention primarily on the House of Representatives, the new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and the implementation of the Republican campaign manifesto known as the Contract with America. As a symbolic indication of the new Republican workmanlike spirit, Gingrich delivered on a campaign promise and presided over the longest first day in the history of American Government.

On the other side of the Capitol building, however, the revolutionary spirit was much more tempered. For most of the first two days, the meticulous U.S. Senate debated an amendment by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa that would have greatly reduced the power of the much embattled procedural rule known as the Senate filibuster. With the glow of the national media on Gingrich and the House, the upper chamber's laggard deliberations went largely unnoticed.

The contrast between the two bodies was similarly evident throughout the celebrated first 100 days of the 104th Congress as the House of Representatives quickly, if not hastily, passed nine of the ten Contract with America items only to see those same measures pile up on the other side of the building, backlogged in the Senate docket. In both historical design and contemporary practice, there is no monolithic Congress; the House of Representatives and the Senate are two very different institutions.

The Senate's unique position within the bicameral legislature is typified most clearly by Senate rule XXII, the so-called filibuster rule, which allows for free and unlimited debate in the Senate. The filibuster has a long and storied history; from the events leading to U.S. entry into World War I to Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart's dramatic romanticization of the filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the contentious civil rights debates of the 1960's, the American public has witnessed the practice of filibustering in the Senate with both scorn and adoration.

This essay attempts to examine the history of the filibuster with a particular eye toward the ways in which the discourse surrounding the attempts to eliminate the filibuster exemplify certain fundamental contradictions in American political mythology. The debates make it apparent that popular democracy and the American form of republican government are often as contradictory as they are collaborative. More succinctly, yet likely more blasphemous to American sentiment, the relationship between Democracy and The Constitution of the United States is tenuous at best. The debate over the filibuster provides an especially lucid contemporary example of how these conflicting mythologies, which have been part of American politics since one could properly claim an American politics, are reconciled over time and within very different rhetorical contexts.

Because the debate over the filibuster closely resembles the original debate over the Senate's role in American government and because the intent of the Founding Fathers is appropriated by both sides of the contemporary debate, it is necessary to examine briefly the history of the United States Senate. Turning back to the Constitutional Convention of 1789 allows us to understand better the genealogy of American political mythology and the constitution of the two competing, if not contradictory, conceptions of American government that are at the heart of filibuster debates. After examining the relevance of Senate history to the current debates, I turn to the discourse in the debates over the filibuster to determine how what I call the political mythologies of Democracy and The Constitution, which are most often in a state of dormant contestation, come to the fore. …