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"The American Senate" Published

June 1, 1926

Charles G. Dawes

Until the 1930s, newly elected vice presidents traditionally went to the Senate Chamber on inauguration day to deliver a brief speech. They generally took this occasion to ask the senators over whom they would preside for the next four years to forgive them for not knowing much about parliamentary procedure and to bear with them while they tried to learn. This polite tradition sustained a major jolt in 1925. On that occasion, Vice President Charles Dawes, a conservative Republican, unleashed a blistering attack on a small group of progressive Republican senators who had filibustered legislation at the end of the previous session.

Eight years earlier, the Senate had adopted its first cloture rule, which allowed two-thirds of the senators present and voting to take steps to end debate on a particular measure. Dawes thought the Senate should revise that rule, making it easier to apply by allowing a simple majority to close debate. The existing two-thirds rule, he thundered, "at times enables Senators to consume in oratory those last precious minutes of a session needed for momentous decisions," thereby placing great power in the hands of a few senators. Unless Rule 22 were liberalized, it would "lessen the effectiveness, prestige, and dignity of the United States Senate." Dawes' unexpected diatribe infuriated senators of all philosophical leanings, who believed that the chamber's rules were none of the vice president's business.

On June 1, 1926, Columbia University professor Lindsay Rogers published a book entitled The American Senate. His purpose was to defend the Senate tradition of virtually unlimited debate, except in times of dire national emergency. Professor Rogers fundamentally disagreed with Vice President Dawes. In his memorably stated view, the "undemocratic, usurping Senate is the indispensable check and balance in the American system, and only complete freedom of debate allows it to play this role." "Adopt [majority] cloture in the Senate," he argued, "and the character of the American Government will be profoundly changed."

Written in a breezy journalistic style, Rogers' American Senate encompassed issues beyond debate limitation. For example, he believed members spent too much time on trivial issues and that professional investigators—not members—should handle congressional investigations. Although now long forgotten, his work set the agenda for other outside scholarly observers and became one of the most influential books about the Senate to appear during the first half of the twentieth century.

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