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They Were Against It, Before They Were For It

The Minneapolis Star Tribune's nuanced position on the filibuster

9:35 PM, May 8, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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Last week's column traces the venerable filibuster to "the days when Thomas Jefferson first wrote the Senate's rules," and argues: "Today, as it has been for 200 years, an individual senator may talk without limit on an issue; and others may join in, and they may continue to press those issues until or unless the Senate by 60 votes ends that debate and a vote occurs. No other legislative body has such a rule."

The imputation of an ancient lineage to a 60-vote filibuster rule is of course flatly mistaken. The 60-vote rule derives not from the days when "Thomas Jefferson first wrote the Senate's rules," but rather from 1975. Surely Mondale remembers; as a Minnesota Senator, he led the successful fight to reform the filibuster by reducing the number of votes necessary for cloture from 67 to 60. Mondale was, in fact, the leading Democratic opponent of the filibuster. On January 17, 1975, he stated on the floor of the Senate: "It seems to me that a not-so-subtle difference, a profound difference, between 66 2/3 percent and a simple majority could be the difference between an active, responsible U.S. Senate and one which is dominated by a small minority." Mondale accordingly advocated the right of a Senate majority to change the filibuster rule: "May a majority of the members of the Senate of the 94th Congress change the rules of the Senate, uninhibited by the past rules of the Senate? I firmly believe that the majority has such a right--as the U.S. Constitution, the precedents of this body, the inherent nature of our constitutional system, and the rulings of two previous vice presidents make clear."

In last week's Star Tribune column, Mondale acknowledged neither his past positions, nor his own historic role in reforming the filibuster in 1975. Like a good postmodern Democrat, Mondale simply put his past under erasure. Interested readers can turn for further details to the law review article on the constitutional option by Martin Gold and Dimple Gupta. The Gold-Gupta article covers the Senate's 1975 proceedings as but one chapter of an important story.

After adoption of the revised filibuster rule in 1975, Mondale took a look back in a March 18 column ("The filibuster fight") for the Washington Post. That column deserves the attention of serious observers of the current filibuster debate. Mondale proudly wrote: "The modification of Rule XXII [the filibuster rule] may prove to be one of the most significant institutional changes in the 196 years of the Senate." Mondale added: "[T]he Rule XXII experience was significant because for the first time in history a Vice President and a clear majority of the Senate established that the Senate may, at the beginning of a new Congress and unencumbered by the rules of previous Senates, adopt its own rules by majority vote as a constitutional right."

It's a shame Mondale has chosen to ignore his own words; some might consider them inspirational.

Scott Johnson is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.