Professor Chemerinsky and Senate Precedent on Changing the Rules

Now let us turn to the other law review article cited by the December 12 letter, Catherine Fisk & Erwin Chemerinsky’s “The Filibuster,” 49 Stan. L. Rev. 181 (1997). Since only Professor Chemerinsky signed the December 12 letter, I will refer just to him, no slight to Professor Fisk intended.

The 1997 article is cited in connection with the December 12 letter’s interpretation of Senate precedent, specifically in a section entitled “Senate Precedent and Tradition Support Rule Change By Majority Vote on the First Day.” The letter contends that “the Senate has consistently recognized its authority to change its procedural rules by a majority vote on the first day of a new Congress” and that there are “numerous precedents confirming a new Senate’s authority to change its rules by majority vote.”

Although the 1997 article contends that the Senate rules are unconstitutionally entrenched, it makes no claim this view has been accepted by the Senate itself. To the contrary, Chemerinsky states that “[t]he repeated failure of efforts to adopt majority cloture or to permit a majority to change Rule XXII suggests that it is unlikely the Senate will decide on its own that the filibuster is unconstitutional.” 49 Stan. L. Rev. at 225. He argues, however, that a judicial action could effectively vindicate the Senate majority’s constitutional rights. Id. at 225-38. (IMHO, the view that a court would hear the merits of such a case was far-fetched even at the time the article was written, though it became more so after the Supreme Court’s decision in Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811 (1997)).

The 1997 article concludes:

Senate Rule XXII is unconstitutional in requiring a two-thirds vote in order to change the Senate’s rules. Declaring this rule unconstitutional would mean that a majority of the Senate could abolish or reform the filibuster. Ideally, the Senate would recognize this violation and revise its own rules to eliminate the requirement for a supermajority. It is unlikely, however, that the Senate would make such a change; if nothing else, the change is likely to be filibustered by the minority party in the Senate.

49 Stan. L. Rev. at 253. The last sentence is a bit puzzling—the only way the “minority party” can filibuster a rules change is if there is a valid rule allowing it to so. The problem, from Chemerinsky’s perspective, is not that the minority party will exercise its rights under Rule XXII; rather, it is that the Senate does not “recognize [the] violation” that allegedly makes the rule invalid.

What, though, of the “numerous precedents” claimed by the December 12 letter that confirm “a new Senate’s authority to change its rules by majority vote”? Clearly Chemerinsky did not believe in 1997 that these precedents stood for the proposition claimed by the December 12 letter, and a quick review will show why.

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