Friday, June 03, 2005

Filibusters: A Modest Victory

It’s been pretty hot out lately, hasn’t it?

I went on a long walk the other day under the hot sun and started thinking about the recent deal in the Senate. Brokered by the so-called Gang of 14, it basically will allow some judges currently up for judicial appointment to be given “up or down” votes while preserving the right of the minority to filibuster judicial nominees under “extraordinary circumstances.”

I started getting fairly thirsty after a while, and was then reminded of the whole glass is half-full or half-empty analogy.

While there are doubtless many people who are upset with this deal, it makes sense to take a step back and look at the Big Picture for a minute (preferably while drinking a tall, cold glass of the beverage of your choice).

#1 – A historic precedent is preserved
The filibuster has been around since before The Year of the Flood, as my mother likes to say. It’s a historic and important part of our democracy, and something that shouldn’t be lightly dislodged to please the political tides of the moment.

And what’s more, without the filibuster, Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would have lost its dramatic punch. Heck, the filibuster was already ancient back in those long gone days of black-and-white films.

#2 – Minority rights are protected
While Senate Democrats made a number of concessions, they maintain the historic right and responsibility of the opposition party to vigorously represent an alternative viewpoint.

Slightly less than half the country did not vote for the current President or the ruling party in both houses of Congress. Sweeping away the advice and consent of these teeming millions in appointing lifetime judgeships in the highest courts in the land would be a bad thing indeed. Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s magazine, makes the point that democracy is like a suspension bridge: tension is needed from two sides to keep the structure erect. Remove the tension from one side a la the nuclear option, and we’d likely see more than London Bridge falling down, as the children’s schoolyard song goes.

#3 – They had the votes
The truth is that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist likely had the votes he needed to drop the dreaded “nuclear option,” which would have lowered the number of votes needed to end debate (or cloture) from 60 to 51. If not for the work of 14 moderate Senators – people like John McCain of Arizona and Robert Byrd of West Virginia – a major and potentially dangerous change to Senate rules would have been passed.

The Minnow would be lost.

#4 – The nuclear option: bad for Congress, bad for the country
So while conservative groups are screaming that they’ve lost their opportunity to attain absolute power, and some left-wing groups will whine that too many concessions were made, it’s important to realize that something really bad for democracy almost transpired.

It’s important to think about how our nation usually thrives when power is shared and compromises are made between rational yet opposing viewpoints. Changing the rules so that one ruling party can cram its particular variety of judicial nominations down the throat of the opposition is antithetical to the values our nation was founded upon.

In the end, the Gang of 14 stepped in to provide that function that Thomas Jefferson likened to pouring steaming hot tea into a cooling saucer so that it will not scald the palate. The institutions and sometimes archaic rules of the Senate work – as does democracy – even though it’s often messy and tedious and frustrating. The Gang of 14 realized that democracy was on the fringe of being scalded and stepped in just in time to cool things down.

#5 – The real showdown ahead: The Supreme Court
This recent episode may be but a prelude to the major battles ahead over Supreme Court nominations.

Will the compromise on filibusters hold? Does anyone really know what “extraordinary circumstances” are? Will the recent triumph of political moderation be but a blip on the long, slow slide toward extremism that we’ve seen during the presidency of George W. Bush?

Man, that’s a lot to take in. I’m getting thirsty again.

This article originally appeared in the Bellflower-Downey Post


Paul said...

You stated that a historic precident has been preserved? However, there is no historic precident for the filibuster of Judicial Nominees. No other president has needed a super-majority to to approve judicial nominees, only GW. Clinton never had this type of trouble with his nominees and he never had more than 50% of the popular vote in fact in '92 he only received 43% of the popular vote. The wording is very ambigious, what exactly is and extraordinary circumstance?

Eric Berlin said...

Paul -- There's a few problems with your argument.

First, plenty if not hoardes of Clinton's nominee's were issued a pocket veto, meaning Republican Senators never let his nominees out of committee, let alone the famous "up or down" vote. Bush II's nominees have been approved at a higher rate than that of the last three administrations.

Second, if you want to do use popular support as an argument for presidential decision-making, than you'd be in... trouble. Let's not forget that more people voted for George W. Bush in 2000. And what did we get for it? Big Government Conservatism, massive tax cuts for the rich...

Oh, and a little old war that's still smoldering over there in Iraq.