Professor Chafetz and the “Constitutionally Conscientious Senator”

Before considering the Senate’s action last week in amending its rules, I want to summarize one additional anti-entrenchment school of thought. We have already discussed the theory of the December 12 letter, which holds that a simple majority must be able to obtain a rules change at the beginning of a new Congress. An alternative theory advanced by Professors McGinnis and Rappaport is that a simple majority must be able to obtain a rules change at any time. As we have seen, there are significant problems with each of these alternatives, not the least of which is its inconsistency with Senate practice and precedent.

Professor Josh Chafetz, in an article entitled “The Unconstitutionality of the Filibuster,” suggests a third anti-entrenchment approach. Chafetz acknowledges that the Constitution does not require “immediate fulfillment of every wish of the legislative majority,” and he notes “all procedural rules delay the implementation of majority will to some extent, and all rulemaking has at least something of an entrenching effect.” However, he draws a distinction between “acceptable procedural rules” and “unacceptable permanent minority obstruction.”

Chafetz argues that the Senate’s “purported history” of unlimited debate cannot justify the current Senate rules because “the modern filibuster is not about debate.” Modern practice under Senate Rule XXII, he contends, is really a de facto requirement of 60 votes to pass any measure. In contrast, during the 19th century, although there were no formal limits on debate, it was rare for senators to use the privilege of unlimited debate as a means of blocking legislative measures and even in the 20th century, when the ability to filibuster became more formalized, it was generally used only for measures intensely opposed by the minority (particularly civil rights legislation) until the 1970s.

In Chafetz’s view, a “constitutionally conscientious Senator” would be justified in concluding that the current rules cross the line (which he acknowledges to be imprecise) between acceptable procedural rules and unacceptable minority obstruction. Professor Akhil Amar has expressed a similar view:

It is the right and duty of each senator to adjudicate for herself whether Rule 22 has in fact come to operate as an improper rule of decision rather than a proper rule of debate. And in adjudicating that question, the Senate, operating as a constitutional court of sorts, acts by majority rule, just as the Supreme Court itself does when adjudicating constitutional (and other) questions.

Akhil Amar, America’s Unwritten Constitution 368-69 (2012).

Chafetz likewise stresses that the Senate would be performing an adjudicatory function such as a court performs when it exercises the power of judicial review, as opposed to the “application of brute force” by the Senate majority to “displace legitimate rules.” As such, he argues that this function can be performed at any time and is not limited to the beginning of a new Congress.

Chafetz proposes the following constitutional principle to guide the Senate in determining the validity of a legislative rule: “a determined and focused legislative majority must be able to get its way in a reasonable amount of time.” This, he notes, is a “standard, not a rule.” Thus, “[a] constitutionally conscientious Senator would have to exercise her judgment in determining what the line should be between acceptable procedural rules and unacceptable permanent minority obstruction.”

I think Chafetz is quite right to focus on the judicial nature of the Senate’s function here and to approach the issue from the perspective of the “constitutionally conscientious Senator.” However, I believe that such as senator would be (rightfully) skeptical of the theory Chafetz advances.

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