by Karl Kurtz
There has been lots of attention recently to the U.S. Senate's rule that it takes a 3/5 majority to shut off debate and its strategic importance in preventing a debate on the Iraq war. I thought it would be interesting to compare state legislative rules for shutting off debate. I found relatively few legislative chambers that require an extraordinary majority to close off debate.
My colleague Brenda Erickson did an electronic search of 2005 legislative rules for the 95 chambers that publish their rules online. She searched on the subjects of debate limits and "the previous question" (the motion that most legislatures use to shut off debate and call for a vote). Reading these rules, it's interesting to note that many legislative chambers specify how long or how frequently members may speak. Here's an example from the Connecticut House:
No member shall speak on the same question more than twice without unanimous consent of the members of the house present.
Or from the Illinois Senate:
No Senator shall speak more than five minutes on the same question without the consent of the Senate, nor more than twice on that question. No Senator shall speak more than once until every Senator choosing to speak has spoken.
But I was more interested in extraordinary majorities required for calling the previous question. Because I was reading only excerpts of the rules relating to limiting debate and these provisions often cross-reference other rules, the procedures were not always clear. But I identified the following 10 chambers that appear to require extraordinary majorities for shutting off debate (H means house and S means senate):
[See the list and additional comments after the jump.]
- 3/5 vote: Alabama-H, Alabama-S, Hawaii-S
- 2/3 vote: Alaska-S, Massachusetts-H, Nebraska (for "cloture", although calling the previous question is by majority vote), New Mexico-H, Tennessee-S, Wyoming-H
- 3/4 vote: New Jersey-H
The Maryland Senate and House are two of the four chambers that don't publish their rules online, but we are fairly certain from previous records that the MD Senate requires a 2/3 vote to shut off debate.
In addition, the Utah and Vermont senates have rules that specify that a motion for the previous question is not in order, which makes them, on paper at least, the chambers that are most permissive of unlimited debate.
All other states require only a simple majority (or perhaps an absolute majority of all members) to close debate on a bill before the chamber.
Of course, rules are one thing and practice is another. Unfortunately, we don't have good information about how these rules are actually used and whether requiring extraordinary majorities for shutting off debate results in filibusters in the states. We welcome our readers' comments about this.