22 April 2005

In the Nuclear Winter of the Filibuster

The Republicans have put the nomination of two judges on the agenda again, even though the previous Congress filibustered their nomination. It is the first move in a complicated chess game that Republicans have warned will lead them to change Senate rules, unless Democrats back down on the filibuster.

Naturally, Democrats are outraged. They argue that it is the dictatorship of the biggest bully, When the game does not go their way, Republicans change the rules, Democrats say. The underlying argument is that the filibuster is not illegal, in fact, that it is a purposely designed part of the system of checks and balances, intended to prevent the majority party to rule by decree. Every senator has the constitutional right to speak, even if it be ad nauseam to the rest of the Senate. Tough toenails, is the Democratic response to that objection. The law is the law.

Technically speaking, the Democrats are right. Limiting debate without the required sixty senators to end it is a violation of the rules as they stand. But ethically and morally, Republicans have every right to be outraged at the Democratic use of the filibuster. The concept of “filibustering” in the Senate was not designed by the Founding Fathers, nor any other statesman. The filibuster came into being when political debate degenerated into political sabotage. To talk of the filibuster as a constitutional device is nothing but propaganda. I have written about this before.

The question is, will the Republicans have the guts to change Senate rules? Vice-president Dick Cheney has already indicated he will cast the tie-breaking vote if the Senate votes 50-50 on the question. But Democrats have already warned that they will shut down government if the rules are changed. That would mean, no legislation of any kind would get passed, with severe consequences for all branches of public service. No salaries of federal employees would get paid and federal services and agencies such as US Mail would shut down.

The Democrats are banking on the likelihood that the Republicans will find that perspective too worrying. A handful of Republican senators have already said that the “nuclear option” as the Democrats disparagingly call the proposal to end the filibuster is too much for them, and they will vote against it. The Democrats are probably right. Their assessment, that the voters will hold Republicans—and not Democrats—responsible for the mess that would ensue, is probably correct. It is an illusion to think that the Republican electorate is made up largely of highly-principled conservative Christians. In the chaos, it will probably become clear that business interests and lobbyists’ money do most of the talking.

Thus, I believe that, even though I support ending the filibuster, it will not come to that. Nevertheless, the dispute has highlighted how wide the fallout would reach if the partisan Civil War did come to a head. New York Times columnist David Brooks yesterday analyzed the situation correctly, when he noted the main wedge separating red from blue America: Roe v. Wade. Until the liberal tyranny from the judicial benches is undone, there can be no normality in US politics.

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