Paul Greenberg

It was a sad day -- Thursday, November 21, 2013 -- when another tradition died in the U.S. Senate, which was once known as the world's greatest deliberative body. Thursday it didn't so much deliberate as obliterate. The result was the end of an American institution, the filibuster.

The filibuster has long protected both the minority's right to extend debate in the Senate and the country's considerable interest in not rushing to judgment. But not anymore. Not after Thursday.

Let's not confuse the filibuster with some great principle. It was only a great tactic, and, like any tactic, could be used for good or ill. But it was an accepted part of the Senate's vast thicket of technical rules and accepted practices in which freedom itself might take refuge. Especially when those determined to hunt it down come after it. This time they killed the filibuster, reducing what little is left of it to a vestigial appendage.

Maybe it was only a matter of time before those bent on getting their own way would hack their way through the once thick cover of rights and privileges in the Senate, and destroy this last redoubt of deliberation in what was once a deliberative body. A body in which giants like Webster, Clay and Calhoun once held forth. Year after year, speech after speech, they averted one crisis after another, and the Union was saved again and again. Till the fanatics finally got their way. And a terrible civil war replaced civil debate.

This time not even John McCain, a hero in both war and peace, could forge a great compromise. And another wall of the grand old temple that houses the country's republican institutions has fallen. Listen and you can hear the barbarians celebrate their victory. They don't realize it may soon enough become their defeat. For this same rush to judgment will surely be employed against them one day.

The filibuster was not an end in itself, but the means to an end. That end could be a just one or the opposite of justice. Overturning old precedents only establishes new ones, and now power has replaced deliberation as the governing principle of the body where once debate was unlimited -- and so was the hope of its leading to reason.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.