A Short Story
I find it hard to explain why filibusters - arcane tools of Senate procedure which are more at home on C-Span than Headline News - have become a hot topic of discussion. Normally I'd yawn too. I can't watch C-Span any more than I can watch NASA TV (Ever flip by? All you see is a starfield and every few minutes someone comes on the radio to talk about air temperature.) I rely on Remember in November to get my C-Span news. Anyway, I do care today, probably because we're knee-deep into Pesach (Shout out to ORF for recognizin') and I'm not getting any fiber.
Anyway, our story so far: the religious right has its panties all bunched up in a knot about gay marriage and the word "God" in (pick one: public school, money, Pledge, courthouses) and abortion and athiests and the general heresy and godless secularists that plague our great country under Jesus, America. I don't know what on earth stirred up this hornet's nest. Maybe it was Clinton, maybe it was Reagan, maybe it started earlier. I don't know. But they're pissed. And now they're coming after your judges. One opinion that I believe is almost universal: we are a polarized nation. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground these days. You either love Bush or you hate him. You can't love Bush and dislike his policies - it's not allowed. And sadly, it's becoming the same way on the other side of the aisle too. So in the spirit of hatin', Bush is busy nominating a large number of highly controversial people to judicial posts and other positions (UN Ambassador). And of course the Democrats are filibustering.
What is the filibuster, exactly? According to Republicans, it's a threat to democracy. (Don't look up that phrase on the internet, though, as the results are extraordinarily embarrassing. Still, don't judge my argument by my "peers".) To the encylopedia, however, it is a legislative tactic to prevent polarizing legislation. It is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, but its existence is owed to Constitutional rules which do not limit debate in Congress. (In fact, looking at it this way, anti-filibuster rules may not meet the strict constitutionalists' definitions for constitutionality. How ironic...) We have heard and read all kinds of verbage about how it's undemocratic or how it prevents tyranny from the majority, blah blah.
It may be all of that. But I want to talk about how the filibuster protects our Republic. Despite the current mob-rule sentiment, there is something inherently unfair and unjust about a winner-take all system. We recognize this in our daily lives: when we go out to eat with friends, we split the bill, we don't make the person with the largest expenditure pay the whole thing; if we were to order 10 pizzas for a party of 30 guests and 6 of them are vegetarian, we might order 2 pizzas without pepperoni. We don't force those people to eat meat because the other 24 do. (Maybe you do. In that case, stop reading this and go back to beating your wife/dog/kids because you're just mean.) Sometimes winner take all is the only feasible way to operate. For example, if on a vacation I want to go on a cruise and my wife wants to go snow skiing, we'll have to pick only one. (For the record, we both love cruises and I'm too scared to ski in mountains any steeper than those in North Carolina.)
Judicial nominations work this way too. There's no compromise - a judicial nominee is either approved or rejected. That's why filibusters are so great. In a majority-vote situation where the parties are extremely polarized (say, like now), the slightly majority party could push through any number of extremists into the judiciary. But since the Senate requires a 3/5 majority to break a filibuster, nominees must be acceptable to at least some of the opposition. Even if there is no filibuster, the threat of a filibuster usually causes Presidents to nominate, if not moderate, then close to moderate appointees. Laws and judges alike tend to be closer to compromise than to be partisan. Of course, the classic definition of a compromise is when nobody leaves happy, so you can imagine this has become very popular.
Today, however, Bush has not been shy about pushing extreme laws and judicial nominees down the opposition's throats. And whether you agree with his position or not, you should be able to agree that they are "extreme" in the sense that they are supported only by one party and not at all by the other. I'm not pinning blame - obviously the Democrats are circling the wagons and are being generally disagreeable about bills they might otherwise like. But this is exactly why the filibuster works. Eventually, some sort of unhappy compromise must be made and it's business as usual in the capital. An inefficient government is the best government. Listen, I'm "liberal" and I want the government to interfere as little as possible. I can only imagine how much a conservative or libertarian might feel. Look, you may love the drooling, rabid pit bull when it attacks your annoying neighbor that keeps asknig to borrow your tools but never returns them. But someday that pit bull will turn around and realize that your leg looks just as tasty if not more so (since you shower and apparently your neighbor does not). My point is, the government is the pit bull and wouldn't you rather kneecap that sucker now before he turns around to attack you? Even if it means he won't get your neighbor? If an issue is important enough it will be resolved eventually. If America really is becoming more conservative, than the definition of a "moderate" judge will become more conservative and Republicans will soon have 3/5 of the Senate. Why the rush to change the way our government works? Is the filibuster just too old-fashioned for our "drive-thru" mentality? Does this push represent pent-up frustration or the fear that the Republican hold on power may not last forever?