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  • Turning the Legislative Thumbscrew: Minority Rights and Procedural Change in Legislative Politics
  • Jean H. Baker
Turning the Legislative Thumbscrew: Minority Rights and Procedural Change in Legislative Politics. By Douglas Dion (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1997) 291 pp. $49.50

It is not every social scientist who can transform a fiercely academic subject and methodology into an absorbing study of that driest of topics—nineteenth-century legislative behavior. Nor do many academics have the sufficient perceptual range, not to mention the work ethic, to change the obscure and forgettable into an important and absorbing study. But Dion has done so, having written a dramatic tale of the deteriorating rights (entitlements?) of legislative minorities during the mid-nineteenth century in the United States House of Representatives. He deserves credit not just for his exhaustive research and the enterprising tests of his hypothesis in the manner of a political scientist, but also for his ability to survive death marches (his term) through the Congressional Globe and Record, in the manner of a historian.

Briefly, Dion argues that parliamentary obstruction is an indisputable minority right—a political trump—as Dworkin once pointed out. 1 Indeed, no democrat from James Madison to William Gladstone to modern Americans impatient with the mechanics of their legislative bodies would do away with the procedural bridles displayed in such rules and procedures as disappearing quorums, dilatory motions, filibusters, rule changes, and amendments. Granting the need for minority protection, Dion asks, What, are the conditions under which majorities are most likely to move to restrict a minority’s rights? This is a social science question that requires historical testing.

Dion makes clear that the traditional explanations of reciprocity (there but for the grace of God go I in the minority), workload, and political socialization are not valid explanations for the timing of the [End Page 349] removal of minority protections. His conclusion, which avoids selecting on the dependent variable—the latter bad technique often decried by social scientists—is based on a theory of minority obstruction occurring when there are small majorities in the House, which are, by definition and test, more cohesive than large ones. Second, an effective caucus must be in place, and it becomes the mechanism by which parties become more cohesive as they diminish in size. Third, the largest minority parties are be the most likely to obstruct, and on this point, the interaction between majority and minority in a two-party system is obvious. Fourth, procedural changes to limit obstruction are related to the size of the majority party, and, finally, debates and final votes fall along party lines. Clearly this argument is based on a conviction that there are internal, institutional factors that affect the timing of bridling minorities.

Dion scrupulously tests these claims with a number of different techniques. He uses other legislative studies; he applies formal mathematical games analysis to test his theory of obstruction and procedural change; and he employs regression analysis. Unlike many similar theoretical studies, his employs the actual behavior of the House of Representatives in the so-called party period of the nineteenth century. Not content with this strategy, he also turns to the United States Senate, the English House of Commons, and the Austrian Parliament.

I found myself rooting for the Dion theory and completely satisfied that “small majorities are more cohesive, cohesive majorities lead to minority obstruction, minority obstruction leads to procedural changes from a number of different time periods and a number of legislatures” (245). Along the way, I enjoyed Dion’s humor: Where else could a historian of nineteenth-century America learn that there were more than 100 roll calls on the Kansas Nebraska Act?

Jean H. Baker
Goucher College


1. Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), xi.


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