Of filibusters and Black Rod

Americans often look at the British state with a mixture of bewilderment and condescension. After all, they rejected the British constitutional monarchy for something better, and America, as we all know, is the greatest country on Earth. “Ah, the Queen”, they say. “How quaint!” The fascination with the Royal Family over here (will the Diana specials ever end?) doesn’t help. For this reason, Tony Blair has been a boon for expatriate Britons in the US. He is almost universally loved and it gives us an opportunity to show that our government is more than just a Queen with a beautiful crown sitting on a throne. But those Americans who listen to you explain the mechanics of the British state are often left baffled, and who wouldn’t be?

Where am I from: is it England or Britain, and what the devil is the United Kingdom (no, it’s not in the Middle East as some Americans allegedly thought). Should I bring up the full name of my country–The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (TUKOGBANI for short). Perhaps not, because then I’ll have to explain Ulster (= Northern Ireland). So I’ll stick with England, where Harry Potter’s from.

Who leads my country: sure, it’s Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, but how do you explain that she doesn’t really do anything? So, I say it’s the Queen officially, but the Prime Minister in practice. The PM, by the way, can call an election any time he likes, which makes him sound a lot like a dictator, except he’s not (honest!). But it is true that the PM is not directly chosen by the people, and John Major’s first term in office came about not because there was a General Election but because his party (like the Communist Party) chose him when they sacked (not impeached) Margaret Thatcher.

Who makes laws: well, we don’t have a Constitution, so forget that. The concept of the House of Commons sounds great (and makes a wonderful spectacle on C-Span), but mention the House of Lords and Americans shudder. “Unelected? Full of Anglical bishops? What’s wrong with you people?” Ah, but there’s the Parliament Act which allows the Commons to ignore the Lords anyway, so that’s OK.

All in all, the UK/Great Britain/England is one fine mess of a country. But even as I admit this, I am heartened that we are not the only place full of weird anachronisms. Apparently, the Republicans want to get rid of or at least curtail that wonderfully American of weirdnesses–the filibuster [1]. First of all, what a great word (the term comes from the early 19th century Spanish and Portuguese pirates, “filibusteros”, who held ships hostage for ransom). Basically, Senate rules contain no motion to force a vote, with votes only occurring when a debate ends. So if a minority party doesn’t want the vote to happen then they make sure that the debate never ends, by, for example, reading from the phone book or some such. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the filibuster. A great word, a wonderful idea, and eccentric as hell.

We have Black Rod, you Yanks have the filibuster and the Electoral College. Long may they continue.

[1] Ever the cool head, John McCain has said that he would support efforts to reform the filibuster (the “tyranny of the minority”, as Bill Frist calls it), if he could be sure that Republicans would be in the majority forever. His message to the GOP: don’t burn your bridges!



  1. Ronan, you could just say that England is a pretty standard parliamentary system with a figure head royal. Most Americans will understand that.

    Also, England does have a Constitution; it is just found in numerous sources (i.e. it is an unwritten constitution).

    It might be more accurate to say that the UK has no Bill of Rights. . . . 

    <><><><>Posted by<><> <><>< HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fheadlife.blogspot.com%2F2004%2F12%2Fof-filibusters-and-black-rod.html%23comments" TITLE="john dot fowles at gmx dot net">john fowles<>


  2. Ah, who needs a Bill of Rights when you have the EU equivalent? (Darn it. The EU–something else to explain.) 

    <><><><>Posted by<><> <><>< HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fheadlife.blogspot.com%2F" TITLE="ronan at jhu dot edu">Ronan<>


  3. By the way, thanks John. As ever you cut through the crap and deliver the bottom line. “Parliamentary democracy with figurehead monarch”. I’m going to memorise that! 

    <><><><>Posted by<><> <><>< HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fheadlife.blogspot.com%2F" TITLE="ronan at jhu dot edu">Ronan<>


  4. The current problem with the filibuster is that the dems are using it for an unwarranted purpose: to prevent judicial nominations from coming to a vote in the Senate, as is their <>right<>. If the Senate doesn’t approve of a nominee, they should vote “no” in a straight-up vote, not employ obstructionist tactics. I would be just as disapproving of the filibuster in this context if it were Republicans doing it. So that is not the issue. The issue is the obstructionist nature of what is going on. 

    <><><><>Posted by<><> <><>< HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fheadlife.blogspot.com%2F2004%2F12%2Fof-filibusters-and-black-rod.html" TITLE="john dot fowles at gmx dot net">john fowles<>


  5. But didn’t they do that when the hated Clinton was in office? I do seem to recall that tactic going on in the 90’s in the same way it is now!

    My biggest gripe is that they don’t actually filibuster; no one sits there and reads the phonebook or War and Peace or whatever. They just announce that they’re filibustering and move on. I think that if you want to use it, you have to earn it… 

    <><><><>Posted by<><> <><>Lance


  6. The obstructionist tactic goes beyond merely inappropriately using the threat of a filibuster where it is not meant to be used (i.e. preventing a nominee from getting a vote on the floor). Another aspect is the way the dems are being dishonest to the public about what is going on. Take, for instance, this quote in < HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cnn.com%2F2004%2FALLPOLITICS%2F12%2F05%2Fjudges.reid.frist%2Findex.html">today’s news<> from Senator Minority Leader Harry Reid:

    <>We have a situation where, during the four years that President Bush has been president, we have approved 207 federal judges and turned down 10,” he said. “We have an obligation under the Constitution to give advice and consent to the nominations of the president of the United States.”<>This is misleading. The Senate has not “turned down” 10. These nominees have not come to a vote in the Senate. If they did come to a vote and the Senate voted “no”, then at that point it could be appropriately said that the Senate has “turned down” nominations. Reid even states that <>“we have an obligation under the Constitution to give advice and consent to the nominations of the president of the United States”<>. By engaging in the threat of a filibuster on judicial nominees, the Senate dems are denying these nominees their Constitutional advice and consent of the Senate. They are breaching their constitutional duty for the sake of partisan politics. Go ahead and Bork the nominees (dems are particularly good at that) but don’t employ the filibusters in a questionable and obstructionist way. 

    <><><><>Posted by<><> <><>< HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fheadlife.blogspot.com%2F2004%2F12%2Fof-filibusters-and-black-rod.html%23comments" TITLE="john dot fowles at gmx dot net">john fowles<>


  7. John, by its nature, how is a filibuster anything other than “obstructionist”? Isn’t that the whole point. And what is “Bork”?! 

    <><><><>Posted by<><> <><>< HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?headlife.blogspot.com" TITLE="ronan at jhu dot edu">Ronan<>


  8. Robert Bork is a federal court of appeals judge who was nominated to the Supreme Court in the late 1980s. The dems set up a huge research network to gleen any possible quote from Bork’s extensive research and writings to cast him in a bad light. In hearings on his nomination, dems applied various litmus tests to his political beliefs to finally turn him down, voting “no” on his nomination. On the one hand, this was proper because the Senate gave its advice and consent by actually voting “no” instead of threatening to filibuster if his name was put to a vote on the Senate floor. On the other hand, what happened gained a life of its own and has been called “Borking” someone when you try to smear their reputation and standing based on minute and controversial details, tidbits of a speech from 20 years before or a single line in a law review article. Clarence Thomas survived his Borking when the dems dug up some hardly credible allegations of sexual harassment in his former office.

    The reason a filibuster is inappropriately obstructionist in this context is that the Constitution mandates that the Senate give advice and consent to judicial nominations. That means that the Senate <>must<> do this when someone is nominated to be a federal judge. A filibuster is not available under this particular constitutional procedure as a means to prevent the nominees from receiving the advice and consent of the Senate or not. What is happening here is that dems in the Senate realize that if these nominees are put to a vote on the Senate floor, they will likely pass, so they threaten to filibuster if the name gets to the floor for an up-and-down vote, which is what the nominees are entitled to under the Constitution. In other words, in other Senate matters, the filibuster is an appropriate means of obstructionism in the political process. In the context of judicial nominations, however, it is constitutionally inappropriate and thus inappropriately obstructionist.  

    <><><><>Posted by<><> <><>< HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fheadlife.blogspot.com%2F2004%2F12%2Fof-filibusters-and-black-rod.html%23c110235053180110833" TITLE="john dot fowles at gmx dot net">john fowles<>


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