Soaring: A Journal of Undergraduate Research

Soaring: A Journal of Undergraduate Research

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Senatus Exesa: Explaining the Abuse of Procedure in the U.S. Congress


On October 3rd, 2023, Rep. Kevin McCarthy became the first Speaker of the House of Representatives to be forcibly removed from his position as Speaker of the lower chamber of Congress. Though dramatic, this episode is indicative of the current state of American politics. At a time when political polarization between the two parties has never been higher, norms that were once considered the nuclear option are now understood as the norm. Cynicism and distrust of Congress is at an all-time high, with many Americans disabused that the legislative process is effective at all.

This paper analyzes the use of parliamentary procedures in the federal Congress. More specifically, this paper reviews the use of rules by legislators to determine a causal connection between their misuse and the increase in political polarization.

An examination of these dynamics is important for multiple reasons:

First, the U.S. is experiencing a wave of populism that has altered cultural and political norms and has led to an increase in political polarization. Understanding how this populism has impacted American institutions is crucial to understanding its place in U.S. history.

Second, in an era where the post-Second World War global order is shifting, confidence in U.S. stability is remarkably important. The conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East highlight the importance of America’s role on the world stage. Under these constraints, an examination of the integrity of U.S. institutions is especially pertinent.

Third, this paper is a novel examination of the causal link between political polarization and the increased use of procedures like the filibuster and the motion to vacate the chair.

The study uses a mixed method approach as it relies on qualitative data drawn from Congressional records, vote tallies, and research into the extent of polarization within the U.S. Congress and within the parties themselves, and on quantitative data derived from the rhetoric and experience of current and former elected members.

The evidence supports the argument that affective and ideological polarization has had a causal impact on the increasing misuse of procedural rules. The implementation of the motion to vacate the chair by the House of Representatives, the proliferation of the filibuster in the Senate, and the normalization of the Senate hold demonstrates that polarization has had an impact on the federal Congress as an institution. This paper produces findings which showcase how political leaders are abusing the levers of power to achieve short-term political gains in a politically charged environment.

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