Some random thoughts about the “Nuclear Option”:
1. If Frist is successful, the filibuster is dead. Not just for judicial nominations, but for any possible use in the future. If it is “unconstitutional” to use the tactic when debating lifetime appointments, why would it be less so when other legislation requiring a majority vote is debated? Once its use is deemed unconstitutional, it will be impossible to rationalize it in other areas. The only question will be if the Republicans move to abolish it before Social Security privatization comes up for a vote.
2. Of all the arguments made by both sides, easily the most disingenuous has been the argument made by some conservatives that the filibuster is unprecedented in judicial nominations. Besides its use against Abe Fortas in 1968, when an unsuccessful cloture vote doomed that nomination in spite of his support by a plurality in the Senate, the tactic of using extended debate in an attempt to kill judicial nominations supported by a bare majority goes back to 1841, and a full-throated filibuster occurred against the nomination of Stanley Matthews to the high court in 1881 (a compromise was later worked out, and Matthews was eventually confirmed). Prior to Bush’s election, the filibuster had been used, in one form or another, some 17 times in the previous 50 years against judicial nominees, most notably against Fortas, and more recently, against Richard Paez (led by, of all people, Bill Frist) and five other Clinton appellate nominees. And the use of the “blue slip”, while technically not a filibuster, still has the same effect: it’s a parliamentary rule used to ensure that a judicial nominee is supported by a something other than a bare majority.
To argue that those filibusters don’t count because those nominees ultimately were approved, or, in the case of Fortas, because of the unprovable assumption that he wouldn’t have had a majority in his corner, is, to say the least, dishonest. A filibuster is a filibuster, regardless of whether it is ultimately successful. After all, Strom Thurmond had the distinction of the longest filibuster on record, a twenty-four hour speech against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, all to no avail: the measure passed. But since no cloture vote was ever taken, it would be considered by the Orrin Hatchs and Hugh Hewitts of the world as a non-filibuster.
3. The abolition of the filibuster will enable the passage, in the future, of progressive legislation that otherwise would be unimaginable. For example, the Clinton healthcare package, watered down as it was, would have been law today if a straight majority had had the chance to vote on it back in 1994. In fact, President Clinton could probably have proposed a much more generous program, and subsequent Republican Congresses would have been hard-pressed to roll it back later, as Americans came to rely on the new entitlement (which, incidentally, was exactly what Bill Kristol feared, and why he was so active in opposing the Clintons).
It may be a Law of Politics that liberal legislatures can do so much more in a shorter period of time than conservatives. It certainly is true that it is easier to increase the size and powers of government than it is to roll it back. Going back to 1953, Republicans have controlled the White House for 32 of the last 53 years, and have had at least one house of Congress for 18 years. Even when the Democrats controlled Congress, its Southern wing frequently was indistinguishable from the GOP, giving conservatives de facto control on Capital Hill. Yet, during that time, the size and role of the government has increased exponentially, most of the New Deal and Great Society still in place, with the battles taking place at the margins. Civil rights for women and gays has improved immeasurably, abortion and contraception are legal, and the rubric of the safety net has remained in place, all during the Age of Reagan, Nixon and the Bushes, and with liberals, for the most part, out of power. In order to chip away at civil rights or environmental protections, conservatives must do so using liberal rhetoric; the conservative position otherwise would be unpalatable. Since progressive politics has come to mean a more expansive role for the government, its policies are more likely to have a lasting effect.
In short, liberals can afford to lose elections most of the time, since what we accomplish in eight years is more likely to stand than what Republicans can in twelve. Take away the filibuster, and the leftward push will be even more pronounced in the future. Needing only a majority vote, some things that would be otherwise unthinkable, such as massive regulation of the Oil Industry (even nationalization), Universal Health Care, a shifting of the tax burden from the middle class to the super-rich, a repeal of Taft-Hartley, would suddenly be doable. And all it would take would be one good election cycle.
4. There are very few people on either side of this debate who wouldn’t have the opposite opinion if the Democrats controlled the government and the Republicans were the ones trying to use the filibuster.
May 14, 2005
Some random thoughts about the “Nuclear Option”:
May 12, 2005
*In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. Glazer is indirectly a client of mine, through his ownership of commercial property giant General Growth Properties, whose interests I represent before the local bankruptcy court.
May 11, 2005
May 09, 2005
UPDATE: Well, at least one critic disapproves, although it reads like one of those interminable Pauline Kael "reviews" of a Clint Eastwood movie, where it was clear that it was written well before she saw the film....