Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Senate Antics

Democrats in the Senate, under the leadership of Harry Reid, have threatened to slow down or stop the legislative process if Republicans change rules to enact what's known as "the nuclear option." For those of y'all who don't know what the nuclear option is, I'm glad you asked.

There is a system in place in the Senate (as any discriminating viewer of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington will no doubt know; Jimmy Stewart is the man) called the filibuster. That system has been modified from when it was originally conceived. Initially, the Senate had no rules on how to stop debate. Any senator could start a filibuster, and there was no way for the rest of the Senate to stop it. In case some of you haven't seen the movie I mentioned above (in which case I say "shame"), a filibuster is when a senator gets up and takes the floor for an extended period of time in order to block legislation. Typically the senator will make a speech about something unrelated to the legislation at hand, because who can talk about the same thing for over 24 hours (the length of time that Strom Thurmond famously filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1957)?

In 1917, a cloture rule was enacted, which meant that at any time, two-thirds of the present Senate membership (meaning those present at the time...hence, if only 60 senators were present, they'd need 40+ votes as opposed to the 67 they'd need if the entire membership were present) could vote to cut off debate and force a vote on the legislation at hand. In 1949, the rule was changed to two-thirds of the entire Senate membership, meaning that if only 60 senators were present, then they stood no chance at all of cutting off debate. In 1959, the rule was changed again, back to what it originally was in 1917. In 1975, the rule was revised from two-thirds of the voting senators present to three-fifths of the entire Senate membership.

So in the last 88 years, the system of debate in the Senate has been rethought a number of times. And here we are, on the cusp of changing it again. The so-called "nuclear option" is a Republican idea, championed by Bill "You-might-get-AIDS-from-tears-and-saliva" Frist, M.D., which would change the rules on cloture once again. This time they're not talking about two-thirds or three-fifths, though. They're talking about a simple majority. Fifty-one out of a hundred votes would close all debate on an issue and force a vote. Why is this significant?

You might be thinking to yourselves, "Well, that's a good thing. Senators shouldn't be able to hold up the process because they don't like what's going on, especially if they're in the minority." But such reasoning is antithetical to what we do here in our country. It's antithetical to the ideals of our Republic, which offer protection to the minority in cases where they stand the chance of being overwhelmed by the majority. The problem is that in a two-party system, either the Senate is deadlocked (party-wise), or one side has a majority (excepting, of course, anomalies like Jim Jeffords, an independent senator from Vermont). The filibuster is there to offer protection and a voice to a minority. Not just a small minority, but a large minority. Bigger than 40%. We're not talking about 5 senators being able to get together and hold up business. We're talking about better than two out of five senators getting together and making their voices heard.

Do I like the idea of holdups in the legislative process? Nope, I don't. But I also don't like the idea of a precedent being set where 40% is not a big enough group to get its voice heard, or to have an impact on things.

And the most absurd thing of all is that Republicans have used the filibuster when they were in the minority! This certainly seems a bit short-sighted, at least to me. They must really think that they've got a hold on the Senate until the end of time, because if they didn't think that, they might be tempted to realize that this could potentially affect them too, when the pendulum begins its long, slow swing in the other direction.

Which it will.