Filibusting Our Balls

One of my earliest memories of cable television is flipping past C-SPAN to see some distinguished-looking elected official speaking passionately... to a giant empty room. I first thought that the network was just showing Senators practicing their speeches, warming up before everyone else filed in to listen. (Seemed a little dry, but c'mon, it's C-SPAN. There's only so many times you can show procedural arguments from the House of Lords.)

I later learned that this speech to an empty chamber had a name: filibuster. Not only does this little procedural quirk have a name, it has a fantastic purpose: to threaten the extension of debate on proposed legislation so long that it never comes up for a vote. Some call this unfair obstructionism; others, a safety valve against tyranny of the majority. (Sentiments seem to change depending on which political party controls the Senate at any particular time.) The filibuster has gotten a lot of pub recently as frustrated Republicans have discussed invoking the "nuclear option," thereby eliminating the possibility of Democratic filibuster on President Bush's judicial nominations.

But before getting into that issue too deeply... some fun facts and a brief history of the filibuster. (And, no, despite being a self-proclaimed government dork, I didn't know all of these things off the top of my head.)

The U.S. Senate has minimal restrictions on floor debate, so, in theory, a Senator can speak for as long as he or she damn well pleases. And it doesn't need to be on topic, either: Huey Long read his mother's favorite recipes, Rush Holt read Aesop's Fables, and Al D'Amato sang showtunes. And, in the most famous filibuster to date, Senator Strom Thurmond read (among other things) each state's election rules and the entire U.S. Constitution while speaking for 24 hours straight. The legislation he wanted to derail? The Civil Rights Act of 1957.

"Read me a bedtime story, Uncle Strom!"

The power to filibuster isn't absolute, however; if 60 Senators decide to end a debate, they can do so by signing a petition-- a process called "cloture." This is rarely necessary, though, as the threat of cloture is enough to quash a potential filibuster. Since it's rare that the minority party in the Senate has less than 40 seats, a filibuster is usually possible.

Fast-forward to today. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is pushing for a provision that would allow for suspension of the right to filibuster on judicial nominations. Without getting too Robert's Rules of Order on you, it would work like this: The President of the Senate (Dick Cheney) can move that debate rules be modified for nominations procedures; this would require a simple majority vote, and only 50 of the 55 Senate Republicans would have to approve (Cheney could cast the decisive vote in case of a tie.)

"We're against judicial activism... at least until we get more conservative judges on the bench."

Frist and the RNC, of course, are saying all the right things. Check here, assuming you don't have a weak stomach. Obstructionist Democrats are blocking Dubya's qualified, sterling, and MINORITY (did you catch that?) judicial nominees all in the name of spite. The only answer is the "nuclear option."

First... wow. What kind of Kool-Aid are they serving at the RNC these days?

Second. This is an extraordinarily BAD idea. And, I'll tell you why.

Despite the RNC's claims, filibustering votes on nominees isn't something that the current Senate Democrats have invented. It's been going on for every President since 1968. In 2000, votes for two of Bill Clinton's nominees for circuit court judge appointments were quashed by Republican Senators. In fact, 208 of 218 (95%) of Dubya's nominees *have* been approved. According to the New York Times (which, despite its bias, probably needs to be factual on something like this) that's a higher approval percentage than Clinton, Bush the Elder, or Ronald Reagan. So why the push now?

No dummies, Republicans have their eye on the future. The health of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist continues to fail, and the assumption is that a new judge will need to be appointed before Dubya's second term is over. The Senate Republicans want to make the process of replacing Rehnquist with a conservative as easy as possible.

The short-sightedness of this plan is obvious to many, even some Republicans. John McCain has said that he won't support Frist's actions, saying "I will vote against the nuclear option... because we won't always be in the majority." It's nice to see such clear thinking in a politician; of course, that's probably why McCain didn't win his party's nomination five years ago. What's sexy about compromise and moderation?

How can you not love this guy?

The frustrating part is the audacity of the GOP to assume they have the right to override a fundamental check of the federal government. The Constitution gives the President the right to nominate whoever he chooses for open judicial seats; the check is that these nominees must be approved by a majority of the U.S. Senate. Without the possibility of filibuster, the majority party of the Senate (Republican or Democrat) could unilaterally confirm or deny any nominee sent its way. By giving the minority party the opportunity to kill a vote on a prospective nominee, it's up to the majority to choose someone that both sides can agree on.

Which is messy, and bothersome, and frustrating, and takes a lot of time and effort. But that's how democracy works, kids. Like Winston Churchill said, it's the worst form of government out there... besides all others.


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