Filibuster Doubletalk

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The NAACP is lobbying to preserve the Senate’s filibuster in Washington these days. What’s next for the civil rights group? A campaign encouraging Southern pride in the Confederate flag? A fundraising drive to build more of those odious monuments to Robert E. Lee?

I am not a big fan of George W. Bush’s judicial picks either, but don’t insult my intelligence -- and I won’t insult yours -- by pretending that the filibuster is the cornerstone of American democracy, the guarantor of all our cherished liberties.

The filibuster, from the Dutch word for pirate, is a parliamentary move that allows a minority of senators to prevent the chamber from voting on a measure by indefinitely extending debate. The Senate filibuster dates back to the early 19th century, but the obstructionist tactic will always be associated with the efforts of the Senate’s Southern Dixiecrats to block civil rights legislation in the 20th century. The effort was so successful for so long, as Robert Caro vividly recounts in his “Master of the Senate” tome on Lyndon B. Johnson, that the Senate was widely referred to as “the South’s revenge for Gettysburg.” The filibuster kept the federal government from combating racial lynchings, the poll tax and plenty of other outrages, which is why the NAACP’s Washington office and liberal voices across the country used to rail against the filibuster as the ultimate perversion of American democracy.


It’s now a perversion of history for the NAACP and these other liberal voices to champion the filibuster because it is temporarily convenient to do so. Like the Republicans’ hypocritical attack on states’ rights in the Schiavo case or in the debates over gay marriage, the liberal defense of the filibuster is an example of how devalued intellectual honesty and consistency have become in Washington.

In our frenzied 24/7 news cycle, everything is tactical, of the moment. Depending on today’s correlation of forces, you can defend the filibuster, even if you decried it yesterday and may do so again tomorrow. OK, I know, I know, silly me for being disappointed by such rank hypocrisy in politics.

Still, the liberal People for the American Way’s pro-filibuster TV ads are a breathtaking assault on the intelligence of viewers. They feature a “common sense” Republican -- a firefighter, no less -- arguing that even his guys in Washington need some moderating by the minority, that “America works best when no one party has absolute power” and that our democracy works best when “both parties are speaking out and being heard.” That’s quite a spin on a practice that allows the hijacking of a legislature so that no one can have a say because there cannot be a vote.

Best of all, of course, the commercial’s defense of the 200-year-old filibuster opens with that stirring moment in U.S. history, Jimmy Stewart’s noble filibuster in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Presumably Strom Thurmond’s filibuster of civil rights legislation and Theodore Bilbo’s defense of the poll tax were cut out solely because of time constraints.

The leadership of the Democratic Party ought to be particularly ashamed of its love affair with the filibuster, given the party’s blemished history on racial issues. Yes, the Republican move to disallow filibusters when the Senate takes up presidential nominees is cynical (Republicans seemed pleased enough to have the filibuster when Bill Clinton was president) but the GOP did lead the fight against the filibuster in the day when it was being used by Southern Democrats to perpetuate racial injustice.

Republicans are once again contemplating some of the same parliamentary maneuvers to circumvent the filibuster for judicial nominees that were attempted in the 1950s to pass civil rights legislation. They’re complicated, but they essentially seek to exploit the fact that although it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and 67 votes to change the Senate’s rules, it might only take a simple majority to back a ruling that the filibuster is inappropriate or unconstitutional when acting on a presidential nomination. And this could lower the bar needed to confirm the next Supreme Court justice from 60 votes to 51.


I’ll admit to feeling somewhat queasy about this prospect. But not enough to rewrite history or the Constitution so as to embrace the filibuster, however tempting it might be to do so in the context of judicial appointments.

The main fallacy of the filibusteros’ argument is the notion that this arcane Senate procedure is the last line of defense for minority rights in the American constitutional scheme, that without it our democracy would be transformed into a tyranny of the majority. That’s absurd; James Madison and Alexander Hamilton didn’t rely on the Senate to someday come up with its own idiosyncratic brake on the will of the majority -- our government’s entire structure is deliberately laden with checks and balances. Hence its independent branches, the two chambers of Congress and the Senate’s own design, granting each state an equal say.

The filibuster goes too far in upsetting the balance struck by the Constitution and empowering an obstructionist minority. Surely the founders didn’t intend for the Senate’s “advice and consent” review of presidential nominees to require a supermajority.