Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Changing the Filibuster Rules

Senate Majority Leader Bill First has the votes needed to change filibuster rules, which would clear the way for easier confirmation of judicial appointments, according to The Washington Times.

Hugh Hewitt agrees with Frist "that the Constitution does not provide 41 Senators the power to block nominees. Thus every time a filibuster is employed against the nominee, damage is done to the Constitution's intent. I think that is a damage worth halting at the first opportunity."

And Hugh argues that the fact that Republicans may need to use the nominee filibuster at a later date is unconvincing because it is "the embrace of extraconstitutional means to reach political objectives."

Yes, but not unconstitutional. We should be careful seeking rule changes that serve immediate political goals but may be dangerous for long term protection of the power of the political minority. I'm not ready to assume that the current domination by the Republican Party will last. The political landscape could easily trend back toward the Democrats, particularly if inroads into the Hispanic community don't continue.

This morning's post by Jim at Stones Cry Out urges caution about changing the rules to limit filibuster.
I agree, but for a different reason. He is concerned that the loyal oppositon would not be all that loyal with a sharper tool at their disposal. My reason is more general.

Today's generation really doesn't know what is meant by the word "filibuster," mainly because no senator or congressman has demonstrated the tactic for a long time. All we have heard is saber rattling threatening a filibuster.

I remember when the filibuster was a living reality. It was used by Southern politicians to fight against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The longest filibuster in history is Strom Thurmond's stretch of 24 hours and 18 minutes opposing a civil rights bill in 1957.

At the time I was involved with the civil rights movement I thought that a filibuster was an unmitigated evil, a way that a minority of nasty people could stand in the way of progress by opposing the majority. As i grew older, I learned that securing a majority is not the same as selling the result. Anyone who believes otherwise need only to look at today's sharply divided opinions following the last presidential election.

A filibuster does not absolutely stop a bill. It can be overcome by a cloture vote, which is a super-majority. It used to be 67 votes in the Senate, but the rule was changed in 1975 to reduce the required number to 60. The required super-majority is shrinking as the years go by.

Why is a super majority important?
I believe that there are instances where the minority view is so strongly held, so resistant to change, that without that super majority the results will be so lacking in good will that "victory" will be somewhat hollow.

I know from personal experience that even after cloture was invoked in 1964 resentment ran very deep in white circles. It is fair to say that that resentment is alive and well today, although it is no longer popular to express it openly as in the past. A change of behavior was all that was achieved by law. A change of the law does not reach, and cannot reach, into hearts and belief systems. That is a change measured in generations, not sessions of the legislature.

Confirmation of presidential nominees is only symbolic.
At the heart of the debate are deeper questions that the majority wants to avoid.

It seems I am arguing that in some way a super-majority will somehow improve good will but that is by no means the case. If anything, a super-majority tends to make the losing side even more durable, less open to good will no matter how it is expressed. The much vaunted "will of the majority" is invoked, along with an unwillingness to examine, much less honor, any core objections at the heart of the opposition. What happens next has less to do with good will than behavior.
In the case of validating a presidential appointment, the super majority manifests an uncompromising level of political will, insuring that the losing side will become less likely to continue obstructionist tactics. The losers are apt to become more cynical, if less active, instead. ("We'll give them enough rope so they can hang themselves.")

It is a clear political example of push coming to shove. The super majority says to the losers "Get over it." That seems to be the message coming from Washington these days, whether the topic is spending money we don't have, misappropriating the funds we do have, tearing at the fabric of Social Security, waging war, or turning a cold shoulder to a growing mass of uninsured citizens.
I, for one, want there to be no question in the future who to hold responsible for the results of today's policies.
We will have to wait and see if enough people "get over it" to make it work.

I found a broken link to be corrected, so while the file is open something can be added.

Thinking further about the idea of a super-majority, it seems a step toward the coalition concept found in parliamentary systems. Coalitions, of course, are political solutions to NON-majorities whereby a constellation of opponents join hands for the purpose of creating enough votes to get something done...despite other disagreements.

We may be coming to a turn where a simple majority is no longer effective. The two-party system has operated wonderfully well for a long time, mainly by subsuming otherwise opposing views under party "platforms." It is no accident that the term plank is used when describing a party's position. It is an oblique way of saying that not every person in the party buys into the principle, but for the sake of political efficacy all have agreed to that plank for the purpose of this particular election. For that reason political platforms, like bleachers, are forever being torn up and rebuilt as the seasons change. Without this pliability, neither party would have any chance of pursuading voters to abandon the other and vote differently.

There is now a lot of talk about red states and blue states. A careful look at a map of the results of the election will reveal that very few states are pure to either color. What appears upon a closer look is that the red/blue divide more likely follows social and economic interests within every state, with urban areas distinct from rural, high-income counties distinct from low-income, etc. One need not drive as far as another state to find someone else of a differing opinion. Sometimes a walk across the street will be far enough.

Despite a clear mixing of the two opinions all over the place, we allow ourselves and our pundits to fall into the lazy and inaccurate habit of talking the language of red/blue states, rather than being clear about this or that individual idea. It's much easier to call names and paste labels than to embrace the hard work of figuring out how best to deal with issues one at a time.

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