So who is to blame for the recent government shutdown? Much of the media coverage has suggested that both political parties are responsible, which is, of course, laughable. While 90 percent of Senate Republicans voted to pass the Continuing Resolution that would keep the government open, 90 percent of Democrats voted against it. So the obvious answer is: Chuck Schumer and his Democratic caucus shut down the government. It was their 44 votes that did it. But not so quick. I suggest the real culprit is someone else. It was the Vice President who was most responsible.
No, not that Vice President. I’m talking about Vice President Aaron Burr. Let me explain.
Despite popular myth, the Senate was never designed to be a supermajority institution (except for approving treaties). The filibuster rule came about by accident, not design.
The year was 1805. Vice President Burr, in his role as president of the Senate, got rid of the “previous question” motion, or the rule that allowed the Senate to end debate on a bill. This was done by mistake. It was not done to allow filibusters. It would be many years later, in 1837, before a senator would use Burr’s mistake to impose the will of the minority on the majority.
And it wasn’t until 1917 that the Senate was able to add a rule to end debate (called Rule 22 or the cloture rule). But Rule 22 required a two-thirds vote to end debate, which was changed again to a three-fifths vote in 1974.
Throughout the early 20th Century, filibusters were often used to kill civil rights bills. Legislation supported by a majority of the country, such as an anti-lynching law, was prevented by the filibusters of Southern Democrats.
Since the filibuster is counter to the democratic norm of majority rule, one might legitimately question why the practice is still in place.
But be certain of this. The filibuster rule is not in the Constitution. It is an arcane rule adopted by the Senate to enable the minority to impose its will on the majority – as Democrats did last week when they shut down the government.
Yes, Chuck Schumer and the Democrats deserve blame for the shutdown, to be sure.
But don’t forget Vice President Aaron Burr and a mistake made 213 years ago. Will the government ever correct this wrong? Of course they will. But as with most things, Congress may not get to it quickly.