Background, Activities and Critical Analysis
civics, social studies, history, language arts
Time: 2 class days
Objectives: Students will:
the history of the filibuster and its constitutional implications.
the filibuster legislative procedure and its recent use in the U.S. Senate.
the controversy surrounding the use of the filibuster, the meaning of terminology
surrounding this controversy, and some of the proposals considered to address
in groups to develop position statements on opposing and moderate views of the
their position in a persuasive method to promote their viewpoint.
collaboratively to resolve the conflict and arrive at a solution.
on their experience and communicate their ideas to their representatives in the
battle over judicial nominations has been going on for nearly two decades in the
otherwise courteous atmosphere of the Senate. The Constitution provides the president
will appoint his choices for the federal judiciary and the Senate will provide
"advice and consent" on these nominations. Generally, this process has worked
well over the years in regards to judicial nominations. However, during the Reagan
administration and continuing through the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations
the process has been more acrimonious. Senators from either parties at one time
or another have used tactics and procedures to delay or eliminate a president's
choice for confirmation. Most recently Republicans have accused Democrats of using
the filibuster to deny the president his choice nomination. The current Senate
leadership under the Republicans has proposed that the Senate revise procedures
of confirmation to disallow the use of the filibuster in judicial nominations.
The minority Democratic party has rejected this proposal. There are reasons presented
and contested by each side over history, constitutional precedent, morality and
a host of other topics. Each side has threatened to take action that could from
one side change a long-established Senate procedure and in retaliation from the
other side slow down the Senate's procedural process. Such an occurrence has been
referred to as the "Nuclear Option." All of which makes for a complicated, sometimes
confusing, and potentially historic change in the way the Senate does its business.
lesson takes a current look at this process as the Senate deliberates President
Bush's most recent nominees for the federal courts. The lesson guides students
through some of the history of the issues and historic events now transpiring.
It will have students look at the merits and detractions of the filibuster process,
its use and alleged misuse, and what some senators are doing to avoid a "nuclear
these lesson plans better
to National Standards
I: Pre-lesson Activity
1. To best help students understand the complexities
of the filibuster controversy; it is recommended students get some background
on the issue. The following news stories from The Newshour with Jim Lehrer provide
this. As a homework assignment before you begin the activities, pass out the student
handout "Pre-Lesson Activity" and have students complete this prior
to conducting the lesson activity. Teachers might consider downloading and printing
the transcripts for distribution to students. Students can also download streaming
video of the segments at the Web sites:
students review these stories and take notes on the questions below for later
What is a filibuster? What is the Constitutional precedent of the filibuster?
What is the procedure used to close a filibuster?
C. What are the reasons the
Democrats have used the filibuster recently?
D. Why have Republican's been
frustrated with the use of the filibuster by the Democrats and what have some
Republican senators threatened to do if the Democrats use the filibuster again?
What have Democrats said about this proposal?
F. How have some moderate Republicans
and Democrats reacted to this dispute and what have they offered as compromise?
II: Day One - Opening Activity
Before the activity, make copies of the Teacher Resource "Terminology."
Make enough copies for your class to permit students to work in groups of three
to five students. Cut the terms and definitions apart. Place the terms in one
envelope (A) and the definitions in another envelope (B) making enough envelope
pairs for each group.
On the day of the opening activity, begin by dividing up the class into equal
groups of three to five students. Distribute envelops A and B to each group.
Tell students to take out the contents of the envelopes in two piles on their
desks or tables and have them match the definitions to the terms.
Debrief this part of the activity by calling on a group to define a key term,
discussing that concept and then moving on to another group to define and discuss
another term. (Teachers might want to close this activity upon one group accurately
matching all the terms to the definitions or if time allows, have all groups finish
the matching activity.)
Next, divide the class into three large groups. These groups will represent:
Republicans who are proposing the end of the filibuster procedure.
against ending the filibuster procedure.
3. Moderates (Republican and Democrat)
seeking a compromise in the dispute.
might want to randomly assign these positions or allow students to pick their
group if an evenly balanced division can occur.
Distribute the student handout "Senate Debate Preparation Sheet" with
the transcript to the Newshour segment, "The Filibuster Debate": http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/congress/jan-june05/filibuster_5-16.html.
This segment can also be viewed in streaming video through the link at the
Tell student to review the transcript of the program and answer the questions
listed in their assigned section to prepare for the senate debate. Provide class
time for students to work in their groups to answer the preparation questions
and consider the positions they have on the filibuster issue.
Teachers might also want to direct students to recent statements by the leading
senators on the issues of filibusters and judicial nominations.
This activity can be continued as a homework assignment if necessary.
III: Day Two - Senate Debate
1. Provide a brief time in the beginning
of class for students to meet in their groups to review their position and discuss
any specifics of their presentation.
Begin the class with the Republicans presenting their views on the filibuster
and why they feel it should be ended for judicial nominations.
Then have the Democrats present their position on preserving the filibuster.
Finally, have the Moderates present their position and any compromise they develop.
Distribute the "Decision Making Matrix" to students to complete.
Have students state their position and the action they propose.
Next, have students in their groups create and discuss two alternative courses
of action to address the problem.
For each of the possible alternatives, have them identify positive and negative
consequences of each. Then have students design their best resolution.
Each group will present to the class its decision and the reasons for it.
A vote can be taken by the entire class on each of the three proposals.
Conclude this activity by having the students write a letter to their senators
on how best to resolve the issue. They may send this letter to their senators
through the senators' Web sites found at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
Research the recent history of judicial nominations beginning with the nomination
of Judge Robert Bork. Have them chronicle the tactics used by opponents and supporters
during these nomination proceedings and the results of the proceedings (were the
nominees confirmed or not). Then have them assess the effectiveness of the tactics.
Trace the historical use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. When did it originate,
how often and for what type of legislation was it used, and what are some of the
highlights (and "lowlights") of its use in the Senate. Write an article
or op-ed on your findings as it relates to the current situation.
Show parts or the entire movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and have
students assess the use of the filibuster in this fictionalized depiction compared
to the use of the filibuster in the senate today. Identify and comment on the
similarities and differences you see.
K-12 Standards Addressed:
Standard 5: Understands the major
characteristics of systems of shared powers and of parliamentary systems.
13: Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors
that tend to prevent or lower its intensity.
Standard 15: Understands how
the United States Constitution grants and distributes power and responsibilities
to national and state government and how it seeks to prevent the abuse of power.
19: Understands what is meant by "pubic agenda," how it is set, and
how it is influenced by public opinion and the media.
Standard 20: Understands
the roles of political parties, campaigns, elections, and associations and groups
in American politics.
Economic, social, and cultural developments in contemporary
Standard 2: The student understands how a democratic polity debates
social issues and mediates between individual or group rights and the common good.
Arts (from The National Council of Teachers of English)
Standard 5: Students
employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process
elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of
Standard 7: Students conduct research on issues and interests by
generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate,
and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts,
artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose
Standard 8: Students use a variety of technological and information
resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and
synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Senate - http://www.senate.gov/
Committee - http://www.rnc.org/
National Committee http://www.democrats.org/
Greg Timmons is a teacher, curriculum writer and Executive Director of The Constitution
Project in Portland, Oregon. He has taught middle school and secondary Social
Studies for over 30 years, wrote lessons, and directed institutes on U.S. Constitution
related issues. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Oregon Council
for the Social studies.
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