Filibuster, how did that Liberum Veto work out for you?

10 February 2010 - By

Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” — Edmund Burke

The current method of filibuster being used in the U.S. Senate reminds me of the corrupted version of the Liberum Veto as practiced during the periods in which the Polish Commonwealth was weakened.

From Wikipedia: Liberum veto (emphasis mine):

[The] Liberum Veto (Latin for I freely forbid) was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It allowed any member of the Sejm to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify all legislation already passed at it by shouting Nie pozwalam! (Polish: I do not allow!).

From the mid-sixteenth to the late eighteenth century, the Polish—“Lithuanian Commonwealth utilized the liberum veto, a form of unanimity voting rule, in its parliamentary deliberations. The “principle of liberum veto played an important role in [the] emergence of the unique Polish form of constitutionalism.” This constraint on the powers of the monarch were significant in making the “rule of law, religious tolerance and limited constitutional government … the norm in Poland in times when the rest of Europe was being devastated by religious hatred and despotism.”

This rule evolved from a unanimity principle (unanimous consent), and the latter from the federative character of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was essentially a federation of countries. Each deputy to a Sejm was elected at a local regional sejm (sejmik) and represented the entire region. He thus assumed responsibility to his sejmik for all decisions taken at the Sejm. A decision taken by a majority against the will of a minority (even if only a single sejmik) was considered a violation of the principle of political equality.

In the first half of the 18th century, it became increasingly common for Sejm sessions to be broken up by liberum veto, as the Commonwealth’s neighbours —” chiefly Russia and Prussia —” found this a useful tool to frustrate attempts at reforming and strengthening the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth deteriorated from a European power into a state of anarchy.

Many historians hold that a major cause of the Commonwealth’s downfall was the principle of liberum veto. Thus deputies bribed by magnates or foreign powers, or simply content to believe they were living in some kind of “Golden Age”, for over a century paralysed the Commonwealth’s government, stemming any attempts at reform.

In the past, the U.S. Senate was governed by a high degree of decorum. It was the house of slow deliberation, and where disagreement arose, it arose in a gentlemanly form. As with the way the Liberum Veto was used as part of proper deliberation, the atmosphere of discourse and compromise had worked to strengthen the country.

In momemts of severe disagreement, a Senator could rise and invoke a filibuster (as everyone points to, recall Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). The Senator invoking the filibuster had to occupy the floor and continue deliberation, expounding on the reasons he was against the legislation or otherwise wasting time. It was a personal effort at blocking legislation.

Certainly, power and politics played a role in the past, but not to the extent to which it has over the past 20 years. We have moved from a proper system of checks and balances to the misuse of such, much as the Liberum Veto came to be misused. In this day, one Senator may simply state that he disagrees with some legislation, nomination, or treaty and retire to his golf game while that issue remains blocked indefinitely. Any issue may now become the hostage of any one man.

In order to move past the filibuster a super majority is required. In effect, most legislation now requires a super majority to get past the whim of any one Senator. Our government in general, and particularly any effort at substantive reform, may be brought to a grinding halt. As with the corruption of the Liberum Veto, a Senator’s objections are no longer personal, deeply held beliefs that a Senator was forced to defend in person. They are no longer part of the art of gentlemanly disagreement. The filibuster is a weapon in the hands of every Senator doing the bidding of his masters, i.e., the interest groups, lobbyists, and moneychangers.

The danger of the corrupted Liberum Veto lives on in the form of Senate filibusters under current Senate rules. While the filibuster does have a role in defending the opinion of the minority, it should not be used to permanently impede the will of the majority. That is not how the framers envisioned our system. More dangers lie ahead. The filibuster in the hands of a Senator kowtowing to a foreign power (Israel, China) will further speed the end of the American experiment. It is time to get this powerful tool back in check.

3 Comments on “Filibuster, how did that Liberum Veto work out for you?”

  1. FrGregACCA says:

    According to Wikipedia (I know, I know), the Senate Majority Leader always has the option to force those who would block legislation to actually filibuster. Sen Reid needs to begin doing this forthwith.

  2. Deacon Jim says:

    Fr. Greg,

    Check out the Congressional Research Services: Filibusters and Cloture in the Senate [pdf] by Richard S. Beth. See especially Holds on page 20. The entire thing is fascinating and scary.

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