Sunday, May 22, 2005

"Blue Slips" Rule R.I.P.

Over the years I have had to listen to a good many frustrated Southern peers complain that this is a rePUBlick, NOT a deMOCKrucy. This charming old canard is usually the one trotted out when people down heah are getting something crammed down ouwah throwt by some meddling outside agitator who just happens to be representing the overwhelming mass of clear thinking on the part of the rest of the country.

The most famous example of this complaint, of course, is that of civil rights legislation and its offspring...public accommodations, school desegregation, "transitional" neighborhoods and "white flight," affirmative action, etc. Hard on the heels of racial issues we have watched helplessly as women and members of alien religious groups were able to get legal protection from discrimination. (We can handle the snake handlers and holy rollers okay, but those Jews and Catholics are another story, don't you know.)

But throughout all this modern history Southerners have been able to seek refuge in a few parliamentary shenanigans in Washington to assuage their bruised traditions, making the medicine go down a little better by the oldest of games in political representation: playing politics. You can read it any way you want, but after all the fluff is blown off, playing politics amounts to -- adjusting Lincoln's famous line -- fooling most of the people most of the time.

Why else do all those military bases spread their tax dollars on the local economies of the South? It is no accident that Southern senators for decades were able to trade off principles for pork as the solid South, as it was called, successfully retained its agrarian power and played it powerfully well in return for a goodly share of the national wealth. We may sometimes have been, as they say "suckin' hind tit," but at least we had a teat to suck.

This is too much fun and I am getting distracted, but my point is that in the South we know something about how federalism works, how a minority is able to have protection from a tyranny of the majority, and how comity can succeed where confrontation is often counterproductive to progress. I guess that is why the filibuster issue resonnates with me. I have spent my adult life within Southern society as one of the minority within this larger minority. I know what it is like to get snarky remarks like "you really like those people, don't you?" as I consciously and systematically advanced my own affirmative action program as a manager of a labor-intensive business. Before it was over I was pleased to have fashioned my own version of a UN at the business I left behind. It was, and continues to be nearly three years later, a model of cultural and racial blending, with people from half a dozen countries and cultures all working together in a town that was once called "redneck" in a national magazine.

Getting to the topic at hand, it should be noted for the record that the filibuster has not been the only tool that a minority has had in Washington to keep a determined majority at bay. I knew there were others, but like personal hygeine and cosmetic surgery, these are not the kinds of things one talks about openly. Like Godwin's Law, mentioned below, talking about it is self-defeating.

The blue-slip system was in place before this, but that little trick of gentlemanly prestidigitation was quietly poisoned in just the last few years. Kevin Drum explains how it worked.

Originally, after Republicans gained control of the Senate in the 1994 elections and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch assumed control of the Judiciary Committee, the rule regarding judicial nominees was this: If a single senator from a nominee's home state objected to (or "blue-slipped") a nomination, it was dead. This rule made it easy for Republicans to obstruct Clinton's nominees.

But in 2001, when a Republican became president, Hatch suddenly reversed course and decided that it should take objections from both home-state senators to block a nominee. That made it harder for Democrats to obstruct George W. Bush's nominees.

In early 2003 Hatch went even further: Senatorial objections were merely advisory, he said. Even if both senators objected to a nomination, it could still go to the floor for a vote.

Finally, a few weeks later, yet another barrier was torn down: Hatch did away with "Rule IV," which states that at least one member of the minority has to agree in order to end discussion about a nomination and move it out of committee.

Here endeth the reading. Well, that reading anyway. Here is another one.

Forget about the Republican vs Democrat part. That's not my point. The main point is what is happening to the process. Drip, drip, drip...a little at a time we seem to be moving, in fact away from the Republic toward a Democracy. On the face of it, that is a good thing. But the simple truth is that ordinary people do not, and have never in history, participated in a democracy in any meaningful way, other than in very local and limited assemblies. The Greeks, to whom we owe the notion, only permitted a select population to participate, seeing no contradiction between their political ideals and owning slaves, let alone the status of women whose right to vote has still not been obtained in parts of the world to this day.

Political ideals are as smooth and aesthetically pleasing as the marble of a Greek statue. But like the statue, they do not breathe or bleed. As in the business world blood does not show on a balance sheet, neither does it show on the pages of leather-bound books in lawyer's bookcases.

Tip today to Josh Marshall, whose vigilance never seems to end.

1 comment:

MaxedOutMama said...

This was very interesting - I know little about Senate procedure.

Regarding the move toward democracy, this can occur only to a relatively small extent given our political structure. There may be a danger here I'm not seeing, but I am skeptical.

I enjoy your blog very much. The perspective you bring to your posts and the way you pull different issues together speaks of a life led well and thoughtfully.